As rent and housing costs skyrocket and grocery prices follow suit, many people are finding it difficult to afford healthy food. Thirteen per cent of Canadians are unable to reliably purchase safe, nutritious food, and according to Food Banks Canada, and more than 860,000 people use a food bank every month. Nearly 40 per cent of them live in Ontario, where in March of 2016, more than 335,000 people accessed a food bank — a third of them children.
Financial and food donations are key to the survival of any food bank, but typically, those donations come in the form of snacks and processed foods, like potato chips and boxed mac and cheese. That’s why the Mississauga Food Bank is determined to change the food bank landscape with a ground-breaking initiative to provide healthy produce and protein for its clients.
Two years ago, executive director Chris Hatch came across an article on aquaponics, a form of agriculture that combines aquaculture (fish farming) with hydroponics (growing plants without soil). He thought it could have some potential at the food bank, so he headed to Wisconsin to take a course on the method. Last November, AcqaGrow Farms officially opened; they held their first harvest at the end of March.
“We’re the only food bank in Canada to use aquaponics to supply food on a weekly basis,” Hatch says.
The aquaponics farm isn’t especially large — only 500 square feet — but it allows fish and greens to be raised and cultivated all year round. That’s enough to produce approximately 200 pounds of fish and more than 2,000 heads of lettuce each year, which works out to 11,000 servings of fish and greens. (The fish are sent off-site to be cleaned and filleted.)
“The system is quite remarkable in terms of how sustainable it is,” says AquaGrow’s farmer, Colin Cotton, who has a background in ecology. Tilapia are brought in as fingerlings, when they each weigh about 50 grams and measure 2 to 4 centimetres. As the fish grow to roughly 1 kilogram, they produce waste, which is filtered, broken down, and then released as fertilizer for the lettuce. The lettuce receives these nutrients through its roots, while a gravity fed pump sends clean water back into the fish tanks, so the cycle can start over again. Aquaponics uses 90 to 95 per cent less water than traditional agriculture, and the Mississauga Food Bank chose LED lights (which use 70 per cent less electricity than grow lamps) to minimize energy further.
It’s not just an efficient, integrated system, it’s also a flavourful one, since the tilapia are fed a high-quality diet. Cotton says that AquaGrow Farm’s choice of fish food and growing process make for tasty fish for food bank users (with less of that earthiness that tilapia can sometimes have). The fish will be harvested every three months, and the greens — which will include kale and bok choy, as well as the currently planted lettuce — can be harvested weekly.
While the Mississauga Food Bank’s primary commitment is supplying healthy options to their clients, they also want to educate their own community and the broader public so they can better understand the possibilities of urban agriculture. Every month, Cotton leads interactive, educational tours; schools, businesses and community groups are also welcome to come by.
The project is currently being funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation, which has pledged two years of operating costs for AquaFarms, though Hatch notes that individuals can help at any time by volunteering or donating healthy food. The food bank also has a program called “plant a row, grow a row,” where, he says, “we encourage backyard farmers to grow an extra row of carrots or tomatoes in the summertime to donate to the food bank.” It’s one more way Mississauga neighbours can ensure that everyone in the community has enough on their table to eat.
Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian in private practice and is author of The Enlightened Eater's Whole Foods Guide.
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