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Tom Eblen: FoodChain expanding mission with kitchen and neighborhood grocery

Rebecca Self of FoodChain, an urban agriculture nonprofit, posed with greens being grown along with tilapia fish in an aquaponics system. The greens and fish are sold to restaurants.
Rebecca Self of FoodChain, an urban agriculture nonprofit, posed with greens being grown along with tilapia fish in an aquaponics system. The greens and fish are sold to restaurants.

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.

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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.

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"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.

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