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:

As we give thanks, let’s give some help

November 25, 2009

As many of us prepare a big Thanksgiving dinner, it’s worth thinking about neighbors who won’t be so lucky.

There are more of them than usual.

In fact, food bank directors across Kentucky say there are more of them than they’ve ever seen before.

A report last week from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that the number of American households struggling to feed themselves rose by 4 million in 2008, to a total of 17 million.

The report estimated that one in seven U.S. households — 49 million Americans — were “food insecure” (meaning without enough food) at times last year. It was the highest rate since the study began in 1995, and it included 506,000 families with children.

The numbers were based on a scientific survey of 44,000 households, including 1,881 in Kentucky.

When viewed state by state, food insecurity among Kentucky households was a little above the average, at 12.6 percent, with 4.4 percent of households considered “very insecure.” Kentucky’s numbers have been steady in recent years, although they’re much higher than they were in the late 1990s.

“We’re seeing a lot of folks who have never accessed food assistance before,” said Marian Guinn, chief executive of God’s Pantry, which operates a food bank in Lexington and supplies food to banks in 50 counties.

God’s Pantry and other Kentucky food banks report that demand is up about 30 percent from last year. October was God’s Pantry’s biggest month ever, with 2,400 families served locally.

Food bank directors say many families seeking assistance still have someone employed, but they have seen hours, pay or benefits cut. Others have been laid off or have seen contract work disappear; their unemployment benefits have run out, or they’re waiting for them to start.

“We have had the most people this year that we’ve ever had,” said Jerry Workman, volunteer director of the 30-year-old Berea Community Food Bank.

“Since demand is going up, it’s putting a strain on the food bank, so we’re asking people to be especially generous this season,” said Annette Ball of the Dare to Care Food Bank in Louisville, which has served a 13-county area since 1971.

“What we’re seeing are persons who haven’t been to a food pantry in a very long time,” said Debbie Long, director of God’s Food Pantry in Somerset. “For us, trying to keep up with the demand is very difficult.”

Debbie Amburgey, coordinator of God’s Pantry-East in Prestonsburg, which distributes food to 73 food banks in 12 southeastern Kentucky counties, said she expects the need to increase as the holidays approach. Relatives come home, and hard-pressed families use some of their food money to buy Christmas gifts for their children.

“It’s pretty serious,” said Thelma Willis, director of Helping Hands Food Pantry in Corbin. “There’s a lot of people laid off around here, and we’re having more elderly come in than usual.”

How can you help? Donating to your local food bank is an obvious answer. Beyond charity, though, there’s a growing movement to rebuild Kentucky’s capacity for community agriculture, especially in poor areas where quality of food is as big a problem as quantity.

One such group is a Lexington non-profit called Seedleaf. It works with neighborhoods to start community gardens and teach people how to grow, cook and preserve nutritious food. For more information, go to

Another effort is the Lexington Urban Gleaning Network, which collects leftover food from farmers, gardeners and fruit-tree owners and distributes it through God’s Pantry. For more information, e-mail John Walker at

So as you sit down to your turkey, consider donating food, money or time to an organization that’s trying to meet Kentuckians’ immediate needs — or better prepare them to feed themselves.

Idea Festival speaker profiled in New York Times

July 6, 2009

The New York Times Magazine on Sunday profiled Will Allen, the urban gardening guru and local food supersalesman who will speak this fall in Louisville at the annual Idea Festival.

Allen, 60, a former pro basketball player, is the brain behind Growing Power farm, which provides nutritious local food and jobs for inner city residents of Milwaukee, Wisc. Allen’s work has brought him one of the famous $500,000 “genius” awards from the MacArthur Foundation and other honors.

Allen will speak at the Idea Festival on Saturday, Sept. 26, at 8:45 a.m. at the Kentucky Center. Click here for more information. Click here to read the New York Times Magazine profile by Elizabeth Royte.