In this Resource Spotlight, we speak with Rebecca Self, founder and Executive Director of FoodChain, to learn more about their work transforming the food system.
FoodChain, located in Lexington, Kentucky, aims to forge links between fresh food and community through education and demonstration of innovative and sustainable food system. Rebecca founded FoodChain in the fall of 2011 to push the envelope for programs and efforts to inspire more connections to fresh local food, especially for those who struggled with food insecurity.
“I’m a native of Lexington and while Kentucky isn’t necessarily known for innovative solutions, I believe that our assets in size and resources put us in an excellent position to reimagine ways in which better food can be a more intentional part of community development and resiliency.”
Let’s get started!
Tell us about FoodChain – what are you all about?!
FoodChain strives to cultivate active participation in our food system, especially amongst those who have been systematically marginalized and/or are food insecure. We imagine and operate new infrastructure, including our indoor farm and teaching & processing kitchen, that serve to model more efficient and imaginative ways to make fresh food accessible. Additionally, we offer opportunities for community members to engage with fresh food so they can grow it, prepare it, explore new flavors and expand food preferences, acquire skills and knowhow about the local food sector, and partake of wholesome food together to build a more resilient and self-sufficient community.
What is one thing that makes FoodChain standout?
FoodChain is scrappy and resourceful. When working to solve problems, we have a can-do attitude and therefore, we’re able to provide solutions by linking together seemingly disparate assets. We are motivated and passionate about food justice and committed to doing everything we can to improve our community’s quality of life through food.
Let’s talk Systems Leadership…
How does FoodChain partner with others to catalyze systems change?
FoodChain has a long history with partnerships that span across city services, nonprofits, and private businesses in our communities in order to best serve our neighbors and also to facilitate new, more efficient and malleable logistics. Because we work to re-imagine systems, especially to reduce waste or redundancies, we’ve been able to collaborate with unlikely institutions, both in terms of funding sources and programmatic offerings. Additionally, we see partnerships as a means to become more resilient by dispersing the burden on a wider base and accessing a deeper network of potential problem-solving resources.
How has COVID-19 impacted your community and how has FoodChain responded?
Similar to most communities under Covid-19, emergency food access was one of the most critical needs that arose. While FoodChain is not explicitly a soup kitchen, we have always had communal eating as a piece of our programming, with deep ties with food insecure communities and services. Meanwhile, we also have strong networks within local food businesses, who saw their markets collapse and overwhelming layoffs due to the pandemic.
Lexington’s food pantry institutions were quickly swamped, and we realized that a role we could serve was to help prepare and distribute scratch-made meals to marginalized individuals. To sustain and grow this effort, we joined forces with our visitor’s bureau, VisitLEX, as well as the historic area racetrack, Keeneland, to develop a fund called Nourish Lexington. To date, we’ve distributed nearly 250,000 meals through this program, and of equal importance, been able to invest nearly $750,000 back into our local food economy with local restaurants, caterers, distributors, farmers, and food professionals who have assisted in this work.
The pandemic has caused many regulations to be loosened and new partnerships to be formed. Of the changes you have seen and made, which would you like to maintain moving forward? Are you seeing steps that food systems leaders can take to ensure lasting change?
Through the crisis of urgent need, and by not having the luxury of lengthy planning time, FoodChain, through Nourish Lexington, was able to stitch together unlikely industries and logistical operations in order to address the immediate need for quality food access. As we look towards systematic changes and more sustainable operations, we’re hopeful that we can keep the benefits of changes on the systems level. We hope to continue to not be limited by siloed thinking and operations. In our experience over the last year, more collaborations have led to more innovative thinking and more comprehensive solutions. This includes from a funding level, in leveraging traditional grants and reimbursement programs typically targeting qualifying individuals and merging them with private foundations and corporations who see the benefits of investing in their local economies. Fundamentally, FoodChain is committed to showing that fresh, quality food does not have to be disparate from emergency food, and that there are synergies to be gained by everyone when we rethink our current systems and the race to the bottom.
This country has seen ongoing protests around systemic anti-Black racism in 2020, and a violent fascist coup attempt at the start of 2021. Systemic racism is not new, but there are more conversations happening around dismantling racism at the local, regional and national levels. How does FoodChain work to create a more equitable and explicitly anti-racist food system?
At FoodChain we recognize that food access and connections to fresh food are deeply impacted by generations of system exclusion of BIPOC individuals. Furthermore, oftentimes the sustainable food movement has been ignorant of the role in which culture and ethnic cuisines play a role in families taste preference, especially with regards to southern cuisine and the labeling of certain cuisines and “bad.” In fact, the local food movement can be fairly criticized for its idolization of traditionally white interpretations of good food – the stereotypical Whole Foods “foodie” persona. Given our urban location, along with the underlying conversations around gentrification in the quickly changing neighborhood, we sit at a crossroads between many different demographics, both socioeconomically as well as racially.
We see the first step in our role of helping dismantle the racism that exists both in our local food system as well as our community as a complex effort, though acknowledgement is a key first step. To move beyond platitudes and trite social media statements, however, FoodChain is committed to changing our practices as well to improve our own structures and programs. We seek to hire more persons of color for positions, especially those in leadership, both amongst our staff and board members, and are mindful of what barriers we might have in place that could unintentionally exclude minority individuals. We seek out partnerships with other BIPOC-led organizations working in our community and also prioritize BIPOC-owned businesses to spend our funds. For our services and programs, we also rely on other like-minded organizations to help us seek out historically marginalized and underserved individuals who might otherwise fall through the cracks. This includes efforts to work with non-English speakers and ensure that our materials are not just available in English. Finally, we recognize that we are a work in progress and that while we cannot rectify decades of injustices overnight, we are committed to the practice of becoming and acting as an antiracist organization.
Given what you know now, what is one thing you wish you’d done differently as the organization developed?
FoodChain grew exponentially last year and while we’re a strong organization today, looking back, it would have been nice to have had more structural support in place with basic HR procedures and systems. Additionally, as a place-based organization committed to the neighborhood that we reside in, we wish we had built in more intentional processes for engaging the community with our efforts, including a governance structure that prioritizes neighborhood participation and leadership development. While we strive to improve as we go, it would have been preferable to have these pieces as part of the original formation of the organization.
What is one of FoodChain ‘s proudest achievements?
FoodChain began with our indoor aquaponic farm which is a great demonstration of new ways of growing. But nearly 6 years from when we first incorporated, we were finally able to open our second space – our Teaching & Processing Kitchen – which is one of our most important contributions to our local food system. We designed the space carefully in order to be open-ended and flexible, allowing us to teach fresh food cooking, process locally grown seconds and surplus produce, offer workforce training for local food jobs, and now, generate thousands of wholesome meals for our community.
What is one challenge you’re facing right now? Anything your fellow FSLN members might be able to help with?
Because 2020 was such a growth year for us, the next challenge we face is determining which problems/challenges we can rally to address or possibly solve versus which ones we don’t have the bandwidth to tackle. Because so many barriers in some way tie back to food education and access, mission drift is less of a worry – but rather our limitations are often human resources and capacity, which is harder to measure. Identifying a plan for programming going forward, and maintaining and growing the staff best prepared to execute that plan is the maneuver we’re focused on currently.
At FoodChain, we see the imagery of our name in nearly every facet we operate in; everything connects through food. Because of this, it often means our programming boundaries are fuzzy, as the opportunities are seemingly boundless. One of the biggest challenges, therefore, for us, is to determine where to apply our energy. And the time necessary to make those determinations doesn’t just materialize, but rather has to be allocated – otherwise, in our experience, it won’t happen!
Have you created any useful processes/resources that you’re particularly excited about? If so, please share!
We’re currently in the process of trying to put together a book to capture the lessons learned and details over the last year of Nourish Lexington. While it’s still in production, we’re hoping it can be a guide to inspire replication, capturing the best practices of how different sectors can collaborate to fund and execute a better, more nutritious way of feeding vulnerable youth, adults and seniors in our communities with the resources and expertise of our local food systems.