Sep 12, 2023

Urban Farm to Table


Ashley Castorena

Examining our food stories to rethink our food systems

Image By:
Leah Shaffer

When you ask Chaquenta Neal, the Executive Director of the Lexington nonprofit FoodChain, what her “food story” is, this is the picture you get: memories of her grandparents’ Arkansas home and garden, its position in a food desert, and the legacy of the family bridging gaps in the local food system through sharing their produce with neighbors.  

The significance of this home garden in Arkansas goes beyond the usual windowsill herbs and backyard tomatoes. The fruit of this garden, planted and nurtured by one family, has reached far beyond their own kitchen table. Rather, it has served an entire rural community that is over an hour away from a grocery store.  

Neal’s memories, along with a string of other food and nonfood-related events, led her into the 90,000-square-foot industrial warehouse-turned-urban farm—FoodChain.

Food security is a vital component to both community and economic development. According to the University of Kentucky’s Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER, 2023),  food security 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.”

Food insecurity trends higher in my home state of 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% (CBER, 2023). 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.

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.

“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.”

“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.”

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 educational outreach.

At their warehouse, a processing and teaching kitchen sits at the front of the building, equipped with everything from spatulas to pressure cookers. During the 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 their 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 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 is 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.

“The food system is like the gears of a watch,” Neal explained. “If one part of the gear isn’t working, everything falls apart. If there isn’t food equity, the whole system will suffer.”

As an organization, FoodChain believes a food system is broken when it:

  1. Puts profits for a few above nourishment for all
  2. Considers food to be a commodity
  3. Treats humans as machines or cogs
  4. Plunders earth’s resources
  5. Values immediate gratification

(FoodChain, n.d.).

In contrast, FoodChain believes in a food system that:

  1. Ensures access to fresh food for all
  2. Reveres food for the precious resource it is
  3. Values with esteem and dollars the human contribution towards food production
  4. Conserves natural resources by closing loops and reuse
  5. Prioritizes the savoring of food

(FoodChain, n.d.).

Neal’s commitment to this ideal was clear as she expressed, “My job as a human being on this earth is not just making sure my family is taken care of, but my fellow neighbor as well. If I’m only keeping [food] to myself in my little box, how is that truly being cognizant of my part in the food system? It is a must.”

As I stood in the humid warehouse-turned-urban farm, I found myself in awe for two reasons: First, the fact that humans have found a way to grow produce inside of a building is in itself a spectacular accomplishment. But also, it dawned on me that so many of us are fortunate enough to not have to think about urban farming, much less where our food comes from.

I live a fifteen-minute walk from the nearest Whole Foods and experience deep decision fatigue when trying to choose a restaurant to eat out at—all while living a 20-minute drive from FoodChain, located in a certified food desert. I’m not entirely sure what my place in our food system is, and I think that this might be part of the broken system.

I’m not entirely sure what my place in our food system is, and I think that this might be part of the broken system.

Neal’s food story reminded me of visiting my own grandmother, who lived in Edmonson County, Kentucky. I have vivid memories of the single gas station in her community where we would often pick up a pizza on hot summer evenings. On Saturdays, we would pile in her old Buick and drive over an hour to reach the nearest grocery store. I now realize that her vehicle was her lifeline, because proximity to food is essential. But what about those in her community who didn’t have transportation? How many other remote communities (both rural and urban), like those of my and Neal’s grandparents, exist? Do those communities have a neighbor willing to share food from their garden?

What makes both FoodChain and Neal’s grandparents’ garden significant is not the size or specialty, but that their stewards are willing to step out of their boxes, share with their fellow neighbors, and help build and sustain a more equitable food system.

Center for Business and Economic Research. (2023). Kentucky Annual Economic Report 2023. University of Kentucky.
FoodChain. (n.d.). FoodChain’s impact.

Ashley Castorena is a Kentucky native who is passionate about economic development, community revitalization and coming-of-age dramas. She is the the Cofounder and Marketing Director of Ethel Magazine.