Becca Self is a Lexington, KY native who left town for MIT, but she eventually returned home to work as a science teacher at Montessori Middle School of Kentucky. From teaching, she moved into the nonprofit sector, first as Education Director at Seedleaf, then as founder of FoodChain, a nonprofit that connects the local community to fresh food. Having grown up in a family that loves to eat coupled with her time spent in the classroom, her interest was piqued in how food can be used to engage students in learning. Since its inception in 2012, FoodChain has been working to connect the community to fresh food through education, their aquaponics farm and the soon-to-open Teaching & Processing Kitchen. Becca has dedicated herself to the growth of this nonprofit, and alongside husband and founder of West Sixth Brewing, Ben Self, the pair are also raising 3-year-old twins. Welcome Becca Self as today’s FACE of the South!
What inspired the move from teaching to the nonprofit sector?
The biggest challenge for me was that I was teaching at private schools. I loved working with students and finding new ways to engage them, but I was torn about how the students I worked with were already coming from supportive environments. I really wanted to bring the same kind of educational programming to a wider population, particularly youth who wouldn’t already have such exposure and opportunities.
What is the mission of FoodChain?
To forge connections between fresh food and community through education and demonstration of sustainable food systems.
FoodChain is Kentucky’s first indoor aquaponics system. Explain aquaponics and why you took this approach to agriculture.
Aquaponics allows producers to grow fish and plants in a closed-loop, symbiotic system. The fish waste from tilapia is used as natural fertilizer for the plants, and the plants in turn clean the water for the fish. It allows us to grow food using just 5% of the water of conventional production. By being located indoors, we can also operate year-round with no seasons to contend with.
What are the education initiatives of FoodChain?
Lots! At the most basic, we host thousands of visitors who tour the indoor farm and learn about aquaponics. We also have helped 25 area schools establish classroom aquaponics systems as part of their science curriculum with our Classroom Aquaponics Program. We’re also expanding beyond food production to food preparation and offer programming (after-school and summer) for youth around cooking, called Cook. Eat. Grow. Finally, we host a monthly community meal for our neighbors to provide a venue for folks to get to know each other over home-cooked meals. As our infrastructure expands with our Teaching & Processing Kitchen, it will allow us to do a job training program around fresh food processing as well as offer more education around meal planning, knife skills, food handling and nutrition.
Can you explain the dangers of a food desert?
In most urban environments, we rely on grocery stores to provide access to fresh ingredients. Food deserts exist all over, where residential populations with limited means (over 50% below the poverty line) are living more than a mile away from a grocery store. This means that folks with the fewest resources have the most limited selections and options for accessing and consuming fresh foods, leading to all kinds of challenges with diet-related illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, etc.
Tell us about your partnership with Ouita Michel and Smithtown Seafood.
Ouita is a founding board member of FoodChain and a dear friend. She’s tirelessly committed to growing Kentucky agriculture (and giving KY Farmers the respect/incomes they deserve), while also expanding consumer demand/interest in locally grown goods. The partnership between FoodChain and Smithtown Seafood allows both to benefit (more symbiosis!) as the restaurant has year-round access to fresh ingredients like lettuce, microgreens and tilapia, while the farm has hardly any distribution needs. Both do better together.
What is your five-year plan for FoodChain?
FoodChain has a very broad mission statement and therefore aims to provide education and demonstration of all pieces of a healthy food system. While most know us for production (our aquaponics farm), that’s never been the end goal. We’re currently working to build Phase 2 of our operations, by adding a Teaching & Processing Kitchen to the bay adjacent to our farm. This will allow us to offer cooking classes, host more community meals and even aggregate and lightly process locally grown produce. We hope to have the kitchen open this summer!
The final phase of FoodChain will be to open a Neighborhood Green Grocery to allow neighbors to have increased access (and knowledge) around fresh, affordable food for their families, while also serving as a commonly shared convening space for the community. Ideally, we hope to have the grocery opened in the next two years. Then, it’s just a matter of continuing to run programs and engage residents around fresh food.
Give us a peek at your agenda. What’s a typical day or week like for you?
All over the map! I do all of the administrative pieces of FoodChain — bookkeeping, management, fundraising, marketing, etc. I also still do private tours scheduled throughout the week, along with monthly community meals. In general, I spend my days talking! Lots of communication and hopefully getting folks excited about fresh food and to become links in FoodChain’s work!
When you aren’t at the farm, where can we find you hanging out around Lexington?
I live downtown, so I’m rarely “outside the bubble” of New Circle. I’m a coffee addict and love stopping by our local coffee shops for caffeine and a social fix! I’ve also got nearly 3-year-old twins, so I like to spend time at the parks or outdoors in general! Farmer’s Market and Sunrise Bakery are a Saturday family tradition for us, and of course, I use West Sixth Brewery (our neighbors) as an extended office!
What do you think sets Lexington apart from other Southern cities?
The size and energy of the people. It’s large enough to have an eclectic group of residents, but small enough to really dig in and make a difference! I met my husband here, and we both think Lexington is the perfect city to raise a family in and settle in!
Tell us some of your favorite local restaurants.
So many to name! I love ethnic food, so when we go out, I’m often hankering for different flavors. Athenian Grill, Sahara, Koreana, Pho BC, El Rancho Tapatio, Ramen Ya, Tomo, Panda Cuisine, Buddha Lounge and Pasta Garage! But I also love just good Southern food, so I adore any of Ouita’s restaurants (Holly Hill Inn is our family’s go to special-night-out place), along with County Club, Middle Fork, Lexington Diner and Stella’s. I’ve also recently loved the changing specials at Broomwagon! This list could go on and on …
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I love to sing and dance. I typically do it just in my house, but I really love it!
What is the best piece of advice you have received?
Follow the things you are passionate about. Never lose the ability to laugh (particularly at yourself). Always learn from others.
Do you have any good book recommendations?
What Should I Do With My Life? by Po Bronson.
Name three things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends.
Great food, ChapStick and erasers.
Meet more interesting and inspiring women from across the South in our FACES of the South archives.