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Can indoor farming fix food deserts? These Louisville students think so

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Can indoor farming fix food deserts? These Louisville students think so

Picture of Bailey Loosemore
A larger aquaponics system is under construction in the back of the Western Middle classroom using donated barrels. Jan. 17, 201
A larger aquaponics system is under construction in the back of the Western Middle classroom using donated barrels.
(Photo Credit: Michelle Hutchins/Special to Courier Journal)
Courier Journal
Thursday, February 14, 2019

Deep within the hallways of Western Middle School for the Arts, a garden-topped fish tank invites passersby to watch food production at work.

The small tank is part of an aquaponics system that's maintained by a small group of seventh and eighth graders, members of the school's Student Technology and Leadership Program.

The students spent months last year learning how to sustain the indoor farming system, which uses the fish's waste to fertilize produce like kale and microgreens in a connected bed.

Their work won the students second place at a statewide competition last spring. And with a new, larger system, the students hope to take home first at the same event this April.

A win would be a major accomplishment in anyone's book. But the students have a larger goal to meet — ending food deserts in their community.

"We knew we wanted to make a difference in the STLP program," said T'von Terry, 14, a freshman at Waggner High who helped start the aquaponics project at Western Middle in 2018.

"This is the best we could come up with. It doesn't require land. In my eyes, I think it's an easier way of farming."

Western Middle, a magnet school in the Portland neighborhood, is more than a mile from any grocery store. Some families living near the school don't have personal transportation, and they can find it difficult to get fresh food on a regular basis.

T'von and his family used to shop at a small Pic Pac grocery on West Market Street, less than half a mile from the school. But the store closed in December 2016 and was later replaced by a Family Dollar.

The closure got T'von and after-school programming director Michael George talking about how difficult it was to get fresh produce in parts of west Louisville. And they decided to approach the other STLP members about addressing food deserts in their next project.

George researched solutions to food deserts and stumbled upon the idea of aquaponics. It seemed like something the students could try, and he reached out to FoodChain of Lexington to learn about the nonprofit's indoor farming system.

Employees at the nonprofit and an extension associate at Kentucky State Universityhave since guided the student group in maintaining their small system, constructed by YouthBuild. And in January, the students got to work creating a new system out of two rain barrels.

The larger system will allow the students to start donating the produce they grow to nearby nonprofits like The Table, a pay-what-you-can restaurant, and the Common Table, a culinary career program run by Catholic Charities.

Rylee Stansbury, 13, said the group will likely start with micro-greens, which take just a few weeks to grow.

The system is self-sustaining and requires little upkeep since it cycles water from the fish tank to the produce bed, the eighth-grader said. (Which is good, because the students also have plays to act in and homework to do.)

The group, now named the Aquapunx Consortium, meets at least once a week to check water quality and measure their fish.

KSU is donating koi fish to fill the group's rain barrel system, Rylee said, which the students could eventually sell to raise money for their program.

At large-scale aquaponics farms, like FoodChain, people also raise fish like tilapia that they can sell to grocers or restaurants along with the vegetables they grow, producing both a protein and greens in one system.

Brianna Woods, 14, lives off Westport Road and said her family has never had trouble getting to a grocery store. But as a student at Western Middle, she said the aquaponics project has opened her eyes to issues other people in her community face.

"Westport may be where I live, but this school is my community," the eighth-grader said. "I've gone to school downtown since preschool. To improve where I go to school and my community was really cool."

George and Western Middle teacher Catha Hannah said they'd like to eventually expand the aquaponics program to include an outdoor greenhouse, where their students could show kids from other schools how to grow their own produce.

They've already been approved to travel to a school in Hazard, Kentucky to speak with students about getting into aquaponics, Hannah said.

"We're hoping when we become an authority in aquaponics, it will catch on and we'll become a destination spot for fresh food," George said.

Ken Thompson, a research and extension associate at KSU who's visited Western Middle's program, said he was impressed with the students' passion and interest in urban farming.

Thompson works with K-12 students across the state and is currently leading aquaponics courses at six high schools through a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"It's unbelievable what we're seeing with the students I've been collaborating with," Thompson said. "It's getting these kids really interested, curious, engaged into (the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

"The goal is to see if we could get kids interested in something like this. This could potentially change communities."

[This story was originally published by Courier Journal.]