Behind a steel door, just off the taproom at West Sixth Brewery, the humid air smells of pond water and earthy greens. It’s 80 degrees in there—the opposite of the slightly cool, yeasty breeze in the hall outside. “We keep it this warm for the tilapia since they are tropical fish,” says Rebecca Self, standing next to a bright blue plastic tank that keeps a portion of the organization’s 500 fish.
Self is the founder of FoodChain Lexington, a Kentucky-based nonprofit that is redefining the community’s ideas regarding food literacy and education. With the help of its neighbor West Sixth, FoodChain is also innovating the world of aquaponics by making use of the brewery’s spent grain.
Spent grain, what is leftover after the mash has extracted most of the sugars, proteins and nutrients, can constitute as much as 85 percent of a brewery’s total by-product. Breweries all over the world have devised innovative ways to prevent their spent grain from going to waste—like using beer byproducts to grow omega-3 rich algae, bioplastics, or compost—or but as far Self knows, FoodChain and West Sixth are one of the first to turn it into fish food.
“We are an organization that is also really dedicated to eliminating food waste,” Self says. “When we moved into the building, West Sixth, who are also our landlords, were really interested in seeing how we could work together.”
She runs through the process. First, the spent grain is put in a commercial-grade food mixer with soy meal, fish oil, vitamins and minerals to create a formula that was designed for the nonprofit by researchers at Kentucky State University. From there, the “dough” is spread out on cookie sheets for several hours to dry under a fan until it turns mealy.
“As a nonprofit, we are relatively low-tech,” Self jokes. “But we also want what we are doing to be easily replicable by other organizations.”
The fish are fed with this mixture, which looks similar to fish food available in a pet store, once a day, but that’s not the end of the process. Aquaponics refers to any system that combines conventional aquaculture—raising aquatic animals such as snails, fish, crayfish or prawns in tanks—with hydroponics, which is the cultivation of plants in water.
FoodChain’s tilapia also fertilize an entire small indoor farm with their waste. Self points to two kiddy pool-sized containers with colorful sponges floating inside. “Once the solid waste is removed from the tanks, the water flows down here,” Self says. “The bacteria, which we need to convert the waste water into plant fertilizer, absolutely love sponges because it’s like the perfect place for them to grow.”
From there, this water is pumped through rows and rows of leafy greens—everything from lettuce to radish, chervil to kale—which seem to sprout up from the slab of concrete floor in FoodChain’s warehouse space. Overhead, a row of lamps whose beams mimic sunlight shift on a belt between planters. Opposite the farm, there’s a door that leads to the kitchen of another of West Sixth’s tenants, Smithtown Seafood. “That’s the other step in this process,” Self says. “We have a ‘Fish Friday’ where the guys from Smithtown come and get about 15 or 20 tilapia to serve in their restaurant. We also provide salad mix to them and other restaurants in town.”
There’s no seating at Smithtown, just a counter with a menu pasted down. Under Tilapia Specials, there’s a line written in italics: Every tilapia you purchase sends about $8.00 to FoodChain and its mission of innovative, sustainable agricultural practices. The Whole Tilapia basket is rolled in cornmeal, fried and served with hushpuppies.
“You can take a seat in West Sixth’s beer garden,” the guy behind the counter says, before he hands over an order number and gestures back across the hall to an oaky room with tables and taps, past the steel door that leads to FoodChain.
One of Self’s ultimate goals for the organization includes opening a small store in the back of the building that is accessible to everyone in community. “This neighborhood that we’re in is classified as a food desert,” she explains. “That means that there is a major lack of fresh produce available for residents in the surrounding area. I think we can change that.”
At its current capacity, FoodChain is producing 30 pounds of greens and 12 tilapia a week; but Self would like to see the nonprofit continue to grow her team—made up of four full-time employees and numerous volunteers—to ensure that the organization can make an even bigger difference in the community.
Ultimately, she would like to sell what FoodChain harvests to people in Lexington who don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, while simultaneously building outreach opportunities focusing on food literacy based on the work that they are doing—looking, in large part, at their aquaponics system.
“Since we are a nonprofit, a huge part of what we do is education,” says Self. “That means that I would love for other local organizations to copy what we are doing here. It would be great for the city.”
You’ve heard the expression that beer is food? FoodChain is proof that with a little innovation, beer can, in fact, feed a city.
Ashlie Stevens is a writer based in Louisville. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Eater, Slate and Salon.