As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, food insecurity is a continuing challenge. Lines of cars waiting to receive groceries at food banks, and soup kitchens struggling to keep up with demand, is a constant reminder of the tough times.
At Boca Helping Hands and The Lord’s Place, providing for those who are hungry is becoming more and more difficult therefore we turned to aquaponics.
“We are always looking for ways to receive quality food that is healthy, nutritious, and safe for those we serve,” said Greg Hazle, executive director of the Boca Helping Hands organization that serves about 4,000 families. “The need is great and becoming greater.”
Enter the nonprofit and locally-based Marine Education Initiative and its ambitious aquaponics program.
It has unveiled plans to not only sustainably mass produce fish and fresh vegetables in its recently leased Boca Raton warehouse but also to donate that food to charitable organizations capable of providing meals to large numbers of people.
Early next year, the Marine Education Initiative hopes to have received all the tanks and related machinery from The Aquaponic Source in Colorado in order to launch its aquaponics program within its east Boca Raton location.
“We hope to be up and running with that operation early in 2021,” said Marine Education Initiative Executive Director Nicholas Metropulos. “Since we don’t use soil, all we need is space and this warehouse serves that purpose.”
He said that aquaponics, which involves a symbiotic process of fish and vegetable production being completely interdependent on one another, is the best way to produce significant quantities of food in a safe and highly efficient manner.
“We thought about this (aquaponics) program as a more sustainable way to provide for soup kitchens at Boca Helping Hands and The Lord’s Place,” Metropulos said. “It’s an inaugural project for us in Palm Beach (County), and we are excited about the prospects of being able to provide a lot of food for a lot of people.”
For Boca Helping Hands, the relationship with the Marine Education Initiative has been ongoing for years.
“This is an organization that we have worked with in the past, so we are very encouraged by this (aquaponics) program,” Hazle said. “We are very familiar with MEI’s involvement with underprivileged children through their Responsible Angling Education fishing tournament and this effort will certainly be even more helpful in terms of serving the community.”
Metropulos has long been a supporter of Boca Helping hands and The Lord’s Place, and he said he feels this latest initiative can be a game-changer in supplying desperately needed food to those organizations’ soup kitchens and food pantries.
“We’ve been working with Boca Helping Hands for over 12 years, and in The Lord’s Place we have a partner in West Palm Beach so it’s a win-win,” he said. “Since we’re producing so much food, we wanted to expand our reach and help more people.”
While the decision to “farm” tilapia as part of the planned Boca Raton program is actually an offshoot of that fishing tournament, the focus of the warehouse operation has expanded to include vegetables.
“We have gone beyond fish to where we are really having success (in other locations) with vegetables like spinach, lettuce, and chard,” said Metropulos, whose initial projections envision the Boca Raton warehouse producing enough fish and vegetables to feed over 30,000 people per year.
He said the cost per unit to grow one head of lettuce using the aquaponics method is 20 cents, which is greatly below most retail prices for that product.
The actual nuts and bolts set-up in the Boca warehouse is already underway, and with fundraising nearing its goal of $100,000 the schedule remains intact for the opening in early 2021.
“Everything is going great at this point and we’re confident we can have things up and running on our present time frame,” MEI Director of Aquaponics Dylan Nottingham said.
The process involved in aquaponics is unique and interesting, Nottingham pointed out and represents a highly efficient way to produce mass quantities of food in a short period of time.
The tilapia in the fish tanks produce waste, which is transferred into a separate tank where the ammonia builds up to create the fertilizer. That fertilizer is then moved over into the water beds where the plants are located. The plants then absorb the nutrients from that fertilizer and filter out the water, which then goes back into the fish tank to restart the entire process.
“Aquaponics is a combination of two types of agriculture: hydroponics and aquaculture,” Nottingham said. “Hydroponics is the science of growing plants without soil, while aquaculture raises fish in controlled environments.”
The innovative approach toward sustainable agriculture will be set up in the indoor climate-controlled warehouse in Boca Raton.
“We had to find a warehouse which could maintain just the right environment for the program,” Nottingham said “Once we are up and running, the entire process will be monitored daily.”
Sponsors of the program include Sodexo Stop Hunger Foundation, The Moss Foundation, Groundworks of Palm Beach County, and The Rotary Club of Downtown Boca Raton.
Sodexo Stop Hunger Foundation has been matching (up to $40,000) every dollar that has been contributed to the cause.