UK Community Innovation Partner FoodChain works to Build Food Equity in Lexington Community
The word “farm” evokes several images including rows of crops sitting underneath beaming sunshine, scarecrows, and cows scattered about. Likely, it doesn’t make one imagine an old and urban bread factory next to a brewery. But for Cornerstone Community Innovation Partner, FoodChain, this is the potential of agriculture, in fact, this has become a reality for the 40508-zip code.
Officially Incorporated in 2011, FoodChain exists to forge the links between community and fresh food through education and demonstration of sustainable food systems. It achieves this through three mediums: kitchen, farm and education/outreach.
“The food system is like the gears of a watch,” Chaquenta Neal, Executive Director of FoodChain explained, “if one part of the gear isn’t working, everything falls apart. If there isn’t food equity, the whole system will suffer.”
At their warehouse, a processing and teaching kitchen sits at the front of the building, equipped with everything from spatulas to pressure cookers. During cooking classes for kids and families, sustainable food systems are modeled in real-time. Programming is designed to boost kitchen confidence, highlight the seasonal nature of produce, and allow participants to explore their food preferences.
The most locally recognizable characteristic of FoodChain is its urban farming. Smaller than one might imagine, the farm is divided into two sections: raised produce beds, and large, blue buckets that contain live tilapia. Both sections work together through aquaponics, where the fish waste serves as the fertilizer for plants, and then plants clean the water to send it back to the fish. Working harmoniously, this aquaponics system allows FoodChain to grow fresh and local produce inside the warehouse and enables them to conserve more resources compared to other farming practices.
What sets FoodChain apart from a feeding center is its deep commitment to education. “My grandfather used to say all the time ‘if you teach a man to fish, he’ll have fish for many days’,” Neal recalled. “If you teach people how to do the things they need, they can do it themselves—it gives them self-sufficiency and the power to have control over what they do and do not have.”
Education and outreach are the heart of FoodChain, from hosting programs in classrooms to setting up at farmers’ markets, FoodChain is committed to meeting people where they are in the pursuit of food education.
Food security is a vital component of both community and economic development. It is defined as “access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.” On the contrary, food insecurity means “that the food intake of one or more household members was reduced and their eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food.” (CBRE, P.G 90, 2023)
Food insecurity trends higher in Kentucky than the national average. The average percentage of folks in the U.S. who experienced food insecurity between 1998 and 2021 was 10.4%. The average for Kentucky was 12.3%—almost 2% higher than the national average. It is important to note that the rate of food insecurity tends to increase for certain groups: households with children, single-parent households, and households headed by a minority (CBRE, 2023).
Though food insecurity and poverty are closely correlated, people above the poverty line also experience food insecurity—“There is a misconception about what food insecurity is,” said Neal.
“It is important to understand people at the levels where they are: they could be [middle class and] house-poor or their hours could have been cut short. No matter the socioeconomic status, it doesn’t mean they don’t need food—I think that is how a lot of people get left out in the food equity conversation.”
As an organization, FoodChain believes a food system is broken when it:
- Puts profits for a few above nourishment for all
- Considers food to be a commodity
- Treats humans as machines or cogs
- Plunders earth’s resources
- Values immediate gratification
In contrast, FoodChain believes in a food system that:
- Ensures access to fresh food for all
- Reveres food for the precious resource it is
- Values with esteem and dollars the human contribution toward food production
- Conserves natural resources by closing loops and reuse
- Prioritizes the savoring of food
FoodChain is the current Cornerstone Community Innovation Partner and has worked with the University to host an aquaponics system inside the Cornerstone. It has been used to demonstrate aquaponics as a method for growing food and it has given students the opportunity to work with the system — giving exposure to the concept of food systems in the process.
The organization has a rich partnership history with UK. They have worked alongside the Department of Dietetics and Human Nutrition, Campus Kitchen and the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. After their tenure as Cornerstone CIP, FoodChain plans to work with UK Food Connection to transfer the aquaponics system from the Cornerstone to the Food Connection Kitchen.