by Thelma Sardin
With the proliferation of food deserts, a new program at Chicago State University (CSU) is providing a resource for research opportunities and healthy eating choices through its aquaponics program at the university. CSU’s aquaponics warehouse, located on 9601 S. Cottage Grove, is a hybrid process composed of aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (growing plants in water rather than in soil.) The warehouse opened on August 17th of this year.
The facility has about 10 grow beds that are used to raise bell peppers, strawberries, okra and collard greens, among other fruits and vegetables. Half of the products harvested from the grow beds are used for research and in the future, CSU hopes to profit off of the other half. Profits would be used to expand the facility and the university is still working on ways to market the food.
“CSU’s aquaponics program is not just a science program, it’s a campus and community-wide program,” said Dr. Floyd Banks, professor of physiology and chairperson of the Biological Sciences Department at CSU.
From its inception, the elected officials and CSU administrators involved with the program have understood its relationship with local school children.
Dr. Alison Gise-Johnson, director of science outreach at CSU, is actively looking to educate youth in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields (STEM.) Gise-Johnson wants to train residents and students in these fields. She’s already made agreements with area high schools for students to complete their community service hours at the facility. High schools that have built relationships with CSU include: Morgan Park, Chicago Vocational, Julian and Corliss. Additionally, CSU’s School of Pharmacy will explore growing medicinal herbs in the facility.
The university is using half of the warehouse for farming, but believes expansion of the farming operation will support the program’s mission which is to generate nutritious foods and expand research in urban agricultural studies, said Gise-Johnson.
Aquaponics allows fish to dispel waste into the water which is then filtered to plants. Plants consume the waste for energy thus removing toxins from the water allowing clean water to recycle back to the fish.
The relationship between the fish and the plants creates a wasteless environment; nearly every part of the project is self-sustaining and environmentally friendly. At the same time, almost everything in the warehouse, which is comprised of four 750 gallon tanks, is made from recycled materials. The university’s goal is to farm 450 tilapia fish in each of the four tanks, which would be ideal because of tilapia’s speedy growth and large size.
CSU’s aquaponics initiative was the brainchild of Alderman Freddrenna Lyle (6th Ward) and Alderman Helen Shiller (46th Ward.)
A year before CSU’s president, Dr. Wayne Watson came to the school, the aldermen traveled to Wisconsin and studied urban farming there. Once Watson became president, the aldermen met with him and discussed their plan. Watson enthusiastically agreed and approached Banks about starting the program. Lyle believes the program will attract national recognition. “It is going to be a part in making Chicago State University an environmental education leader,” said Lyle, adding, the program is an educational tool and resource to enrich students and the community in science.
The CSU aquaponics facility is open to the public by appointment only. For a tour of the facility or for more information, contact the university’s Biological Sciences Department at 773-995-2183.