Aquaponics: Growing Our Own Food Sustainably

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Learning how to grow food engages culinary students and harvests real-world science in this featured project.

In an age of environmental unpredictability and rising cost of living one thing not being discussed enough is self-sustainability.  Understanding how to grow and prepare one’s own food is an incredible life skill to develop, regardless of one’s chosen profession.  This is something that Michael Kosko and the educators at  Al Raby School for Community and Environment, Chicago, IL are taking on right now through their program “Aquaponics: Growing Our Own Food Sustainably.”  By teaching students how to grow their own herbs and vegetables, alongside certain types of fish they are hoping to create a program that produces students mindful about their environment and who can also cook up a decent, healthy filet of fish.  This program will also provide students with the opportunity to explore issues of food justice and food deserts which many students experience within their communities.

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Recipe for Success

This project is unique to the Chicago area. While there are many culinary and horticulture/agriculture programs in the city, Al Raby will be the first to combine these two types of programs into one. The Office of CTE (career and technical education) Programs provided equipment for the culinary lab.  In the grow lab, students will grow salad greens, kale, and various herbs while taking care of tilapia and koi. Eventually, this program is looking to partner with local businesses to sell the student harvest. In the classroom, students will study the life cycles of plants and fish and the optimal way to grow both. Since this class will be heavily rooted in the scientific method and student inquiry, students will also study how different variables affect plant growth including temperature, light intensity, nutrient/chemical levels, water quality, diseases, and aquatic pests. And since no pesticides or synthetic fertilizers are used, all produce grown in the lab is classified as organic according to the USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) definition.

Building a Grow Lab and Disseminating Learning

Ultimately, the goal of the project was to build out a grow lab in the school to support their preexisting culinary/food science career and technical education (CTE) program when those classes began in September 2016.  Accomplishing that meant getting the grow lab up and running, which they did, leading to a bountiful harvest in May. Students who took the vegetables home came back with rave reviews from family and friends.  

Currently they are working with the Garfield Park Conservatory, to create a teen docent program made up exclusively of Al Raby culinary students. Fifteen of their freshmen students interviewed for ten spots on the inaugural docent team. During the summer, these students work to create educational experiences for area elementary students and during the school year they will be released from their culinary classes once a month to lead tours for second and third graders.

Along with those benefits, this past summer the selected students ran experiments in the grow lab with Akilah Henderson, the Student Engagement Coordinator at the Conservatory. Under Akilah’s guidance the students will tracked the growth of crops on the conservatory’s farm and in the lab, building on the Botany students’ work from the past semester.

Meeting Challenges and Planning for the Future

They were not without difficulties.  Unfortunately they discovered too late that the district requires schools to obtain special permission to raise fish.  Because of this, the first round in the lab had to do without the fish.  But David Blackmon, the program coordinator for all the culinary CTE programs throughout the district, toured the lab earlier in the month and is working with central office to obtain permission for Al Raby to start raising tilapia and koi next school year. Fortuitously, fish can easily be added to the current units in the lab with no modifications once permission is obtained.

Regardless of the fish-hiccups it sounds like the students and educators at Al Raby are off to a great start.  It sounds like before long they’ll be swimming in so much fish and so many vegetables they’ll have have trouble giving them away!

Plans for a dinner for district leaders and community stakeholders are in the works to share the success and help others savor the impact of the project.

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