FoodChain expanding mission with kitchen, neighborhood grocery

September 20, 2015
Rebecca Self, executive director of Food Chain, an urban agriculture non-profit in the Breadbox building at West Sixth and Jefferson Streets, posed with greens being grown along with tilapia fish in a closed-loop aquaponics system. The greens and fish are sold to restaurants, primarily Smithtown Seafood in the next room. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Rebecca Self, executive director of Food Chain, an urban agriculture non-profit in the Breadbox building at West Sixth and Jefferson Streets, posed with greens being grown along with tilapia fish in a closed-loop aquaponics system. The greens and fish are sold to restaurants, primarily Smithtown Seafood in the next room. Photo by Tom Eblen


The urban agriculture nonprofit FoodChain is trying to raise $300,000 for its next two links: a food-processing and teaching kitchen and a neighborhood green grocery.

The effort will begin Oct. 2 with Relish n’ Ramble, an event featuring tapas by four guest chefs and tours of the proposed kitchen and grocery space in the Bread Box building at West Sixth and Jefferson streets.

Three years ago, founder Rebecca Self and her board raised $75,000 to create an aquaponics demonstration in a back room of the 900,000-square-foot former bread factory, which also houses West Sixth Brewing, Smithtown Seafood, Broke Spoke Community Bike Shop, Bluegrass Distillers, Magic Beans Coffee Roasters and The Plantory, a shared office space for nonprofit startups.

Since September 2013, FoodChain has been producing about 30 pounds of greens and a dozen tilapia each week. The fish and most of the greens are bought by Smithtown Seafood. Blue Moon Farm distributes excess greens to other restaurants.

The aquaponics system works like this: waste grain from the brewery is fed to the fish, whose waste water provides the nutrients for lettuce and other greens to be grown under energy-efficient indoor lighting.

“You would never pinpoint this as a place to grow food,” Self said of the once-abandoned building. “But it’s actually a perfect fit.”

Sales of greens and fish have covered about 35 percent of FoodChain’s $100,000 annual budget, and virtually all of the cost of producing them, Self said. Funding for educational programs comes from donations and foundation grants.

To promote replication of its work, FoodChain has given more than 6,000 tours of its facilities, which also has provided revenue. “We’re unusual among nonprofits in that we have a revenue stream at all,” Self said.

This next phase will move FoodChain closer to its mission: developing systems to bring affordable local food to urban “food desert” neighborhoods, such as the West End.

Self’s husband, Ben, is one of four West Sixth Brewing partners who bought the Bread Box and have been renovating and leasing it. FoodChain’s kitchen and grocery will occupy the last 7,000 square feet of the building, the oldest part of which dates to the 1870s.

The kitchen and grocery will be on the west side of the building’s Sixth Street frontage, with the grocery in the corner. A lot of windows will be added to the solid-brick walls, bringing light and public visibility.

The kitchen will have an instructional area where neighborhood residents can receive food safety certification training for restaurant jobs and take classes to learn to prepare and cook their own meals with fresh food.

In the back half of the kitchen, FoodChain plans to partner with Glean Kentucky, other nonprofits and area farmers to collect, process and preserve food “seconds” that might otherwise go to waste.

“This is something that’s been talked about for a long time,” Self said. “We’re hoping that because we’re getting this food at pennies on the dollar on the seconds market that even once we’ve added in the labor costs it will still be at an affordable price for the store.”

In addition to fresh local food, the grocery will carry other foods and household necessities. Both facilities are being designed to meet the neighborhood’s needs based on focus groups conducted by the Tweens Coalition, a local youth nutrition and fitness organization.

The store and kitchen will create about a dozen jobs, and Self hopes to fill them with neighborhood residents.

“If there’s anything that comes out of the census data for this area it is the desperate need for jobs,” she said. “You can’t afford good food if you don’t have an income.”

Self said renovations to create the kitchen and store won’t begin until all of the money needed is raised. Ideally, she said, the kitchen would open in fall 2016 and the store in spring 2017.

“We’re just trying to show the viability of something like this,” she said.

If you go

Relish n’ Ramble

What: Fundraiser for FoodChain featuring tapas inspired by Indian, Latin and Asian street food from guest chefs Vishwesh Bhatt of Snack Bar in Oxford, Miss.; Ouita Michel of Holly Hill Inn; Jonathan Lundy of Coba Cocina; and Jon Sanning of Smithtown Seafood. Includes a West Sixth beer and souvenir glass and tours of FoodChain’s planned commercial kitchen and grocery spaces.

When: 6-9 p.m. Oct. 2

Where: Bluegrass Distillers in the Bread Box, West Sixth and Jefferson streets

Cost: $35 advance, $40 at door.

Tickets and info:

Food Chain: non-profit aims to strengthen local food economy

July 8, 2012

Rebecca Self, executive director of Food Chain.  Photo by Tom Eblen

When her husband and his partners were planning West Sixth Brewing Co. last year, Rebecca Self realized the 90,000-square-foot former bakery they bought to house it — now known as The Bread Box — could help her achieve some entrepreneurial dreams.

She was then education director of Seedleaf, a Lexington non-profit organization that develops community gardens and teaches people in low-income neighborhoods about sustainable agriculture and nutritious food.

Self was passionate about Seedleaf’s mission, but she wanted to take it a few steps further. So she assembled a board of directors and staff to create a new non-profit, Food Chain. The goal is to demonstrate indoor food production and preparation in urban Lexington and teach sustainable agriculture skills to youth and adults.

“We’re trying to reimagine the local food economy by rethinking the urban spaces we have,” said Self, 33, a graduate of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

By late fall, Food Chain will launch its first project: A huge, windowless room beside the brewery will become Kentucky’s first indoor aquaponics farm, where fish and plants grow together using the same water in a closed loop.

Here’s how it works: Waste grain from the brewery is fed to fish, mostly tilapia, which grow in tanks. Water with the fish’s waste flows through long troughs, where greens, herbs and other food plants grow in a medium under artificial light by absorbing nutrients in that waste and, in the process, cleaning the water.

Once the system is up and running, Food Chain will harvest 240 plants each week and 125 pounds of fish per month, Self said. The system also will produce 120 pounds a year of freshwater prawns, which grow in the troughs where plants are raised.

Renowned chef and restaurant entrepreneur Ouita Michel of Midway, who is on Food Chain’s board, plans to open a fish-and-chips restaurant in the building to serve the tilapia in West Sixth Brewery’s taproom. The fish and greens’ trip from tank to kitchen to plate will be only a few yards, Self said.

Excess greens will be sold to other local restaurants.”We don’t want to go toe-to-toe with in-field farmers, so we’ll grow lettuces and mixed greens primarily off-cycle,” she said. “What we think is probably going to be one of our bigger products are what’s called microgreens, which are the stage before baby greens.”

Those immature plants are packed with nutrition and sell for high prices; restaurants want them, but they are hard for soil-based farmers to grow.

Students from the University of Kentucky’s sustainable agriculture program helped build a small demonstration aquaponics system, where greens, herbs and large-mouth bass are being raised. The full-scale system will be built during the next few months with help from Kentucky State University aquaculture students.

Food Chain has raised more than $60,000 of the $113,000 cost of renovating the space and buying and installing equipment, Self said. That money came mostly from local donations. The organization now is applying for agriculture development grants and planning fund-raisers.

Food Chain expects the sale of greens and fish to cover most operating costs, but the group will continue seeking grants and donations to fund educational programs. Once the aquaponics farm is up and running, Self plans to begin using more brewery waste to grow mushrooms in the basement for sale.

Then Food Chain will put hoop houses on the building’s roof to grow vegetables and create a vermaculture demonstration, where worms break down organic waste into fertilizer.

Food Chain’s third phase will be construction of a certified commercial kitchen in the building. It will be used to teach people how to prepare and preserve the fresh food they grow. The kitchen also will be available for use by entrepreneurs who want to process their locally grown food into jams, pickles, sauces, pesto and other products for sale.

Food Chain will create a few jobs itself, but its main goal is to provide training in sustainable agriculture techniques that will allow people to create their own jobs and businesses, and strengthen Central Kentucky’s local food economy.

“What we’re trying to do is educate and market,” Self said. “We think we’re going to help impact a lot of jobs regionally as people come here to learn and then go off and start doing this on their own.”