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Environment/Sustainability Fri Sep 09 2011

Give a Man a Fish and Feed Him for a Day, Teach a Man Aquaponics...

by Tim Mata

Feeding the poor wasn't enough for one faith-based non-profit on the North Side. A Just Harvest, a community kitchen turned community organizer, is planning a tilapia farm in the North of Howard area. The main feature of the project would be an aquaponics farm that would produce both locally grown food and, ideally, jobs.

The scope of the project isn't your garden-variety urban greenspace. The goal is to construct an aquaponics system that would produce two yields of tilapia in the first year alone. Like a home aquarium, an aquaponics system pumps wastewater out of the fish tank to keep the fish healthy, but that's where the similarities end. Instead of using a mechanical or disposable filter, the wastewater from the fish would in turn be pumped to a separate area with a bed of produce. The water is then filtered by the plants and simultaneously used as fertilizer before being pumped back in to the fish tank as clean water. Depending on the size of the tank used, the amount of fish can be anywhere from a few hundred fish to tens of thousands.

The concept of a closed-system aquaponics farm is not new. Not even in Chicago. Chicago State University, Gayle Academy and others have created aquaponics farms of varying scale. For A Just Harvest, however, this is entirely new territory.

A Just Harvest has provided daily meals since before it was called A Just Harvest. It was formerly known as Good News Community Kitchen. The name change happened in April 2010 when members decided to expand the organization's role to a community development group interested in larger issues of food justice.

Marilyn Pagan-Banks, the executive director of A Just Harvest, made a point of saying that A Just Harvest does not exist to proselytize to the impoverished. It exists to serve. "Our position as an organization is that we're going to work until all have plenty, and no one is left in need. We come from a point that poverty is not a poor person's problem, but it is a societal problem -- and that we are all called to make sure that we need to sort of even the playing field, so to speak."

Marilyn Pagan-Banks

Banks, who is also a co-chair for the tilapia farm project, is a minister who lives in the North of Howard area where the proposed project is planned. She added about the proposed farm, "I'm tired of telling people how to eat, when they don't have jobs to be able to buy the food they need."

This isn't a catch-all project for the neighborhood, however. A Just Harvest is trying to target young adults in the North of Howard area who have little to no employment history. Pam Riedy, a Glenview woman who volunteers with A Just Harvest, is the other co-chair on the project. She said, "These are people who are beyond their teenage years, they haven't gone on to college, they haven't gotten a career, and in fact they might have even gotten into trouble with the law and therefore have got a lot of options that have already been closed to them at the age of 19 or 21."

She didn't stop with jobs. She added, "This has the potential in the course of doing farming to nurture the spirit as well as provide locally grown food." For Riedy, who is an avid gardener, working with her hands is a kind of cathartic, spiritual process. She said, "There's a holistic aspect to this. In nurturing this new growth in a plant or in tilapia that they might be nurturing a growth in their own selves."

Banks also hopes that the project's new jobs will lead to spiritual growth. She said, "For some folks it's going to be just that, a job, but ... as a minister ... I would hope that spiritually there is some healing that happens to people spiritually and that there is just some acknowledgment of who they are in God's eyes."

City laws prohibit livestock within city limits. That typically also includes fish. There is, however, a loophole that allows schools to sponsor the raising of livestock within city limits. A partnership with a school would circumvent the law and allow A Just Harvest to pursue their farm. Although A Just Harvest is still seeking sponsorship for the farm, they've already formed a tentative partnership with the Steans Center for Community-Based Learning at DePaul University to help with planning and research on the project.

DePaul has not committed to sponsoring the proposed farm, but students working with the university's Steans Center spent the 2011 spring semester designing plans for A Just Harvest to serve the community. The Steans Center supports DePaul faculty in developing service-based curriculum and in finding opportunities for both students and faculty to serve in the community. For A Just Harvest, that meant DePaul students took part in three ways.

  • One group of DePaul students collaborated through the semester with A Just Harvest board member, Ron Frantz, to develop a business model to simplify the workflow and project launch.
  • The second group of students worked under Dr. Christopher Einolf, a non-profit management instructor at DePaul, to research relevant agricultural grants and create a template for applying to future grants.
  • The third group consisted of students working directly under Dr. Howard Rosing, the Executive Director of the Steans Center. They canvassed the neighborhood for the project in the North of Howard area. Their task wasn't just to gauge interest in the project or inform people about it either. In a community which is so often measured by what it doesn't have, the goal of the canvassing project was to determine the skills and resources already does have.

Riedy shared in the third idea. Riedy thinks that using what Dr. Rosing calls "asset-based community studies" are a good fit for the project. She said, "It's a totally different approach. It's not just 'are you interested in this project', it's 'what skills do you have? That works as a nice parallel to what A Just Harvest does."

Pam Riedy and other A Just Harvest volunteers at Chicago State University's aquaponics center.

As a resident of the North of Howard area, Banks thinks the community might already have the skills needed to make the project happen. She said, "I think our hope is that through this program we can begin to tap into the gifts and the skills that are already there. And pull them out. Because they are there. The resourcefulness, the tenacity, the wherewithal, the ability to hustle. All of that. To me that's entrepreneurship."

Although A Just Harvest has never done anything like this before, they've already set a deadline for the project: Martin Luther King Day, January 2012. The project can't begin until a school commits to sponsoring their project, but the board on the project is still looking for sponsorship. If the tilapia farm is successful, it will be the first of many similar plans in A Just Harvest's proposed Genesis Project. The Genesis Project is an umbrella plan at A Just Harvest that will include future farming projects for the organization both in and out of the city.

Tim Mata is a Chicago Heights native and North Park University alum who enjoys writing in his free time. He is currently the Chicago Program Assistant for The News Literacy Project.

This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information is available here.

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