Growing Communities through Aquaponics

By Jackie Hernandez

As an (untrained) anthropology enthusiast, I sometimes find myself pondering the roots of our food culture and how it affects our lives. Why do we get (or not get…) chocolates, of all things, on Valentine’s Day? When did quinoa become every Angelino‘s best friend? And most recently, how can I use food culture to help others? This last question came about as I realized how much food affects our mood, our health, our appearance, our environment, our wallet, and arguably,  our effectiveness in school and work. Yikes! Food is a huge deal. Plus, food and eating bonds people together and is a form of cultural expression…. For example, as a Californian, I really related to this video while studying abroad in Australia… (skip to 1:40)

I feel, girl, I feel.

Despite being aware of the importance of food, I know I fall into bad eating habits sometimes, like skipping breakfast or relying on processed foods. I also know that there are many people who are in far worse eating situations, due to lack of healthy alternatives. For them and for myself, I started to take an active interest in urban gardening and how it has the potential to change the way a community eats.

For example, one man in South Los Angeles named Ron Finely started planting vegetables in “parkways”– also known as “that little strip of grass between the sidewalk and the road.” His hard work eventually made it possible for families to plant certain foods in public spaces, giving them easier access to healthy foods, not to mention, a new community-bonding recreational activity. I wanted to do the same. Of course, I hadn’t attempted gardening since the third grade, after a field trip to a Los Angeles tree sanctuary in which each child got to take home a tree seed, a seedling planter, and their best intentions to grow a new life. Unfortunately, my young sprout perished in its planter, thanks to a massive pine tree that heavily shaded my apartment window. Ironic, I know.

Luckily, before I could let that failure poison my potential ability, I stumbled upon a summer long aquaponics workshop at the Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island, a lovely and popular desert island right off the coast of California.  I signed up immediately.  The workshop was taught by seasoned food growing experts, one of which was an “aquaponics” builder who showed us how to construct a cool little ecosystem that produces food without soil. Compared to regular soil-growing systems, aquaponics actually grows plants three times faster, using 90% less water while accumulating almost no waste. I learned that aquaponics is becoming popular with urban growers; this makes sense because it’s perfect for the small outdoor spaces a lot of us city-dwellers tend to have. Aquaponic system can be adapted to balconies, roofs, or even fences and walls.

Being Immersed in the hands on experience on aquaponics, food now took on a whole new level of importance; it was now my job. My co-interns and I taught high school students, measured water acidity, carried 5-gallon containers of water to and fro, planted spinach, learned a lot about goldfish deaths (Fish? See video below) and welcomed hundreds of visitors to our ecosystem at Wrigley’s 50th Anniversary Party. Best of all, the aquaponics system I helped build will actually be used for research and teaching. More research and education will help bring more aquaponic systems to urban environments, reaching more communities in need of better food.

Here’s a short, slightly cheesy video on aquaponics featuring another intern and myself:

Soon, I’ll be one of the many people helping to build an aquaponic system in Parkside, thanks to the support of USC’s Green Engagement Fund. This will allow Parkside residents to consume fresher ingredients while conserving water, fertilizer, and soil per meal. I can’t wait for the project to start and for food to keep influencing me in new ways… because food is not always about ourselves; it’s about strengthening communities and creating a better, more sustainable, world too.

Featured image from Wikimedia Commons

Jackie is a third-year Environmental Studies student with a love of all things outdoors and a knack for writing essays. She was born in Los Angeles, so she can tell you where to find the sweetest thrift stores, hiking trails, theme parks, and which freeways to avoid during rush hour.