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Comfort Food: Urban Education and Aquaponics in Smithtown

Leafy greens grow under UV light at FoodChain's aquaponics farm on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Sydney Turner

There are 2,000 square feet of live leafy greens and 1,115 pounds of tilapia fish cohabit 7,000 gallons of freshwater inside the walls of FoodChain, a non-profit indoor aquaponics farm in downtown Lexington, Ky.

In addition to producing tilapia fish and aquaponic crops like lettuce, herbs, micro-greens and shoots, the organization works inside of the heart of Lexington to inspire, demonstrate and educate locals who want to learn more about the preparation of fresh food, the methods of agriculture and the work that goes into a creating sustainable food systems. The enclosed nature of the farm makes year-round yielding possible.

FoodChain was officially incorporated in 2011 by Founder, Executive Director and Lexingtonian Rebecca Self to serve low-income families and those who may not have access to healthy fresh foods in their neighborhood or other surrounding areas.

The organization does not place parameters around who can get a meal or participate in FoodChain programs; young and old are welcome. Through meal pass outs, cooking classes and educational programs, FoodChain aims to promote food sustainability and inspire healthy eating and lifestyle choices for Lexington locals.

The history and legacy of FoodChain’s Smithtown location reflects and connects with the purpose FoodChain serves today. After the Civil War, Smithtown was mostly settled by freed slaves and free African Americans, who were migrating to southern cities. Developers bought land on the fringes of downtown Lexington and subdivided it into smaller lots, selling them to newly freed African Americans.

In 1974, Congress authorized the Section Eight program, which resulted in a traditionally transient community settling long term in Lexington. Over 100 low-income individuals and families moved into the Coolavin Apartments, located west of FoodChain’s downtown location. Many members of those families found work in the Lexington Wholesale Bakery Company.

An aerial of Food Chain shows what space the non-profit has to work with on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, on West 6th Street in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Sydney Turner

Then in 1995, a records storage company bought the factory, which resulted in the loss of jobs for those employees. In 2011, after the building had been left vacant for three years, the space was purchased, aptly named “The Bread Box” in memory of its former usage and reinvented into a mixed used development space for an assortment of local businesses. FoodChain is one of many local organizations and businesses that resides in the downtown location.

When explaining the importance of this location and why it was chosen for the location of FoodChain, Self said, “the neighborhood itself presented an opportunity, it's a really historically significant neighborhood.”

Self was raised in Lexington. She is a graduate of the Math Science Technology Center program at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. She earned a Bachelor of Science from MIT, after which she became a classroom science teacher for seven years. She worked as the Education Director at Seedleaf, a community gardening organization in Lexington, before she founded FoodChain. Along the way, she married her high school sweetheart and is now the mother of twins.

In urban areas in Lexington, communities outside of a one-mile radius of supermarkets are considered food deserts by the United States Department of Agriculture [USDA].

“There was both limited access in that neighborhood in terms of close proximity to fresh food,” Self said. “But there was also great potential in showing new ways in which food can be grown as well as how people could connect to fresh food, and either obtain employment around food systems or improve their diet or improve community connections.”

FoodChain’s mission statement is “Forging links between community and fresh food through education and demonstration of sustainable food systems.” At the heart of FoodChain’s sustainable system is its aquaponics farm, which was installed in 2013. The freshwater farm blends aquaculture (farming fish) and hydroponics (growing plants without soil) to make one resourceful and efficient system.

Sprouting greens at FoodChain's aquaponics farm on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Sydney Turner

“You are growing both aquatic animals as well as plants,” Self said. “The waste from the fish in our system is serving as a nutrient supply for our planets and in return our plants clean the water, which can go back to the fish.”

Aquaponics farms are viable approaches to sustainable urban agriculture. Residents can obtain healthy and fresh food inside of their communities while living in an area that is considered a food desert by the USDA.

Traveling outside of the community by car or bus can create unnecessary waste or deplete resources in other communities. The food sourced inside of FoodChain goes back into the downtown community by being sold to local residents and restaurants like Smithtown Seafood, owned by renowned chef and FoodChain board member Ouita Michel. According to the restaurant’s website, “[Michel’s] restaurants have purchased $3 million of Kentucky-grown meats, dairy products, fruits and vegetables over the last 18 years.”

Self and other FoodChain employees and volunteers are keen to start conversations about sustainable agriculture and what that can look like for people inside the city of Lexington.

Education at FoodChain does not stop at their innovative aquaponics. Learning happens in FoodChain kitchens through the several programs offered that connect to ideas of cooking and nutrition.

“Cook. Eat. Grow.” is a cooking program offered to neighborhood youth. “The Stir It Up!” program is for people of varying ages who want to gain kitchen confidence and make food choices that are good for both their bodies and the food system supporting them. “Vamos a Cocinar” classes are classes led in Spanish and focus on incorporating seasonal, local ingredients into culturally authentic recipes from Spanish speaking countries. They also host community meals like “Chat ‘n Chow,” which began back in January 2016 and are an opportunity for neighbors and volunteers to join in freshly prepared meals while getting to know one another over shared, nutritious food. Typically, these meals are on the fourth Thursday of the month, and the menu is based upon what is seasonally available.

FoodChain welcomes many hands and many mouths into their kitchens. According to their 2019 Annual Report, under the 2019 Educational Outreach section, FoodChain hosted over 6,285 educational stove top hours, had 949 youth engaged with local food, and used 973 pounds of local produce in education.

FoodChain also participates in “Farm to School,” a program that ensures fresh healthy foods from local food producers goes back into their community through school systems.

“We try and work where there is need and where we can get attraction, whether that be near schools or other existing programs,” Self said.

During COVID-19, FoodChain participates in meal hand-outs for children and adults inside of the Lexington, Fayette County area that are looking for meals.

FoodChain is involved with Nourish Lexington, a collective alliance between FoodChain, VisitLex, Keeneland and the Murry Family Foundation established to prepare and provide fresh, nutritious meals to anyone in need in Lexington. Over 130,000 meals were provided between April and August of last year.

FoodChain also works with the Community Action Council, another nonprofit that focuses on meeting economic needs and offering a “pathway out of poverty,” as their website says. They host meal-handouts and Community Nutrition workshops in which participants gain the knowledge needed to help develop healthy eating habits that promote wellness. These workshops typically cover a range of regularly requested health matters including “eating for a healthy heart, nutrition for diabetes management, and healthy eating on a budget,” according to the organization’s website.

Ka’Sondra Brown is the Volunteer Coordinator for Community Action Council in Lexington, Kentucky at the Cambridge Location. She appreciates the collaborative efforts of FoodChain.

“These are amazing meals. The quality of food they provide us is amazing. It is food that will open up your palate to new and exciting, healthy nutritional meals,” Brown said. “I really don’t think people see how impactful the population that we serve appropriates it and sees it, and just to see how the community has acknowledged. They know when they see a FoodChain van, comfort is here.”

Inside of the kitchen at FoodChain, there is quote by Kimbal Musk, a South African-born restaurateur, chef and the co-founder of Big Green, a nonprofit that has built hundreds of outdoor classrooms in schoolyards across the U.S. It reads, “It isn't just about feeding people but about nourishing the body, the community, and the planet.”

Self explained that quote in the context of FoodChain.

“The kernel in that quote is while obviously feeding people is important, there is so much more that it is really critical to sustain that work,” she said. “I find it to be a hopeful one, but it is not as easy as a message, we’ve got to keep perfecting, we’ve got to keep iterating and improving in order to involve as many people, which is messy, sticky and complicated but often results in a more resilient and sustainable system.”


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