A Flourishing Foodchain
It started with a fish. In 2011, the historic Rainbow Bread Factory in Lexington was purchased by a local business group to house West 6th Brewing. At 90,000 square feet, there was much more space than the brewery required, giving an opportunity to build a community business hub. The neighborhood is a designated food desert, and it seemed natural to have a food producing and educational enterprise in the space.
FoodChain was born. Drawing on the expertise of Kentucky’s land grant universities, an aquaponics system was designed that not only took maximum advantage of the space at hand, but that could be replicated as producing and teaching vehicles. Other businesses moved in and, for below market rent, agreed to do their own upgrades and provide partnerships to FoodChain and the neighborhood.
Local restaurateur and a founding FoodChain board member Ouita Michel opened a fish-and-chips shop, Smithtown Seafood, to buy FoodChain products and serve the fresh food, grown merely feet away, to customers. The restaurant was opened in September 2013 with employees who were neighborhood residents, creating employment opportunities close to home.
The aquaponics farming method uses the efficiency of natural ecosystems to produce plant nutrition and animal protein in a soilless system encompassing 7,000 gallons of water, 500 tilapia and thousands of plants. The recirculating water system uses 90% less water than traditional agriculture.
FoodChain has harvested over a ton of fresh produce, including lettuces, greens, herbs, microgreens and shoots, along with 1,500 pounds of fish. This food has then been processed and prepared on site at Smithtown to create over 18,000 locally sourced meals. FoodChain also partners with a local farm to sell microgreens to local restaurants; runs a microgreen, herb and shoot community-supported agriculture (CSA) harvest subscription program; and hosts the seasonal Bread Box Farmers’ Market. Their sales go to operating costs.
The FoodChain business model provides for research and best-practice development for other producers, and they make resources like their Barrelponics Manual and Microgreen Cost Analysis available to others interested in this type of farming.
FoodChain is devoted to showing the links, not just in food systems but in communities. Over 13,000 educational hours have been provided in the form of classroom aquaponics workshops, tours, community summer camps, workshops and community events. FoodChain works with educational institutions to assist in building mini-aquaponics operations and currently has these in 40 elementary and middle schools in Fayette County.
In 2016, the teaching kitchen opened—another collaboration with the Lexington community that provides space for classes teaching children and adults cooking techniques, nutrition and the value of local products. The Cook, Eat, Grow program serves inner-city children and adults. The Keys to Cooking program, which brings in local chefs to offer cooking classes, is a fundraiser for FoodChain.
The teaching kitchen is complemented by a processing kitchen that receives gleaned food from stores and farmers’ markets, which is then processed and used in cooking classes, community dinners and will be used to stock a neighborhood store when it opens in 2020.
A lot has been accomplished since that first fish in 2011, and the staff of FoodChain continues to push the possibilities. Be a part of the innovation: Volunteer and intern opportunities are available, and donations go to support operations and programs for the community and projects. Public tours available Saturdays and private group tours by appointment.
501 W. 6th St.
Suite 105 Lexington, KY