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There's Something Fishy Going on in Petersburg's Food Desert

Posted by Carlos J. Harris and Scott Elliott, National Institute of Food and Agriculture in Conservation Food and Nutrition
Feb 21, 2017
Vegetables and fish
Virginia State University used a NIFA grant to purchase facilities where they teach aquaponics and urban farming. The operation allows them to both raise fish and grow vegetables in a symbiotic environment. (iStock image)

Money’s tight in Petersburg, Va., and sometimes it’s difficult to put nutritious food on the table.  Like many other cities in America, Petersburg has found its way onto USDA’s list of food deserts – meaning that residents have limited access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.

Virginia State University has found a way to fill the void with a hands-on program that teaches students how to successfully sustain urban farming operations and helps put affordable nutritious food on the tables of community residents.

With the help of a $915,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), VSU Cooperative Extension purchased a large empty downtown warehouse and converted it into an aquaponics production center.

Aquaponics is the combination of raising fish (aquaculture) and growing plants without dirt (hydroponics) in nutrient-rich water.  Within their 52,000-square foot downtown warehouse, VSU has created an indoor urban farm that produces vegetables, herbs, and protein year-round and with a minimal environmental footprint.

How this process comes together is simple.  First, fish (tilapia and trout) are raised in tanks.  Water from the fish tanks is then routed to trays that contain vegetable seedlings, such as tomatoes and lettuce. As the water passes around the roots, the plants absorb nutrients from the fish waste. The water then passes through a filtration process before returning to the fish tank. It’s a continuous cycle that benefits both fish and plant, uses less water, and expends less waste into the environment.  Low-energy LED greenhouse lighting makes it possible to grow plants throughout the year.

In addition to the operations center, research facilities, laboratories, and classrooms, VSU’s warehouse has an in-house produce market and loading dock for trucks to take the harvest into the community.

“This is primarily a research facility, but we will have fresh food available,” said Dr. Marcus Comer, project director.  “We’ll cart it up in mobile units, like the old ice cream man, and take food to the neighborhoods.”

While bringing food to people who have limited access is important, teaching them to how grow their even more so, said Duron Chavis, VSU indoor urban farm director.  “It’s essential for any solution to food deserts to not be paternalistic, in the sense that you don’t just come in a drop food off, because that’s not sustainable.”

NIFA invests in and advances agricultural research, education, and extension and seeks to make transformative discoveries that solve societal challenges.

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Elyn Zimmerman
Oct 26, 2015

Very interesting. What is the model for the mobile food delivery system? Would residents pay for the food? Is the cost of the food subsidized by the research project? Is there enough yield to support a delivery system or would it be part of another pre-existing type system? Is the fish for delivery too?

Francis Johnson
Oct 27, 2015

Which is healiter, farm raised fish or wild caught fish? Do farm raised fish contain antibotics or hormones? If so, how is this beneficial to the community?

Sheryl Paul
Nov 03, 2015

Are any of these farm raise3d fish/oysters certified organic?

Eric Buchannan
Nov 04, 2015

Organic aquaculture is a matter of food and filtration. The quality of food, determines the quality of the fish . The problem is when companies cut corners and feed garbage. Garbage in garbage out. Good quality filtration systems can eliminate the use of antibiotics. Livestock is only as healthy as the environment they are kept in.

Garett Koehler
Nov 11, 2015

Francis, when it comes to ocean fish wild caught is better for the environment if it is done in sustainable numbers because of the problems that arise with some ocean farming such as salmon but with aquaponics there is not a hazard to the environment at all. Some of the question of actual health would come down to what each of those populations are fed or are eating.

Ken Bragar
Jan 16, 2017

I have been enthralled with the Aquaponics method of providing protein and vegetables to the food supply.My specific interest is in using Aquaponics for an individual garden providing a garden of beauty and providing fresh vegetables grown in a hydroponic environment using natural hydroponic liquid rather then a chemical liquid to provide the nutrients. The biggest problem is cost of construction and lack of public knowledge.

Apr 04, 2017

Does the usda or nifa have grants for people who are interested in startinga commercial aquaponics?
Please let me know, been researching n got the land and eveything so trying to see if there resource out there to help the financial costs. Thank you.

Tami Reese
Apr 11, 2017

Is there directions out there on how to built an Aquaponics system with the fish tanks? Do you need plenty of sunlight? Any programs available to get people started?

May 16, 2017