by Rosie Schwartz, RD, FDC
As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, lost jobs and reduced work hours have led to an unprecedented need for food banks across Canada. While financial and food donations are critical to the survival of any food bank, typically many donations come in the form of snacks and processed foods, like potato chips. But community programs can also yield frozen poultry and meat and surplus fresh and frozen produce can be donated by grocery stores and restaurants, through partners like Second Harvest. As well, farm organizations often donate milk, eggs and meat. The Mississauga Food Bank, though, offers a unique take on “farm fresh” for their users by providing healthy produce and protein in the form of farmed fish.
The food bank is changing the food landscape with its AquaGrow Farms which uses aquaponics, a form of agriculture that combines aquaculture (fish farming) with hydroponics (growing plants without soil). It began in late 2016 in the Mississauga Food Bank warehouse with the small farm taking up only about 500 square feet. At that time, they produced approximately 200 pounds of fish and more than 2,000 heads of lettuce throughout each year. This about the equivalent of 11,000 servings of fish and greens. The fish, before distribution, are cleaned and filleted off-site. An expansion to 800 square feet in November 2018 allowed for a doubling of their yield.
Tilapia fingerlings, which weigh about 50 grams each and measure 2 to 4 centimetres, are brought in and put into one of three tanks, where they remain until they’re harvested. “The system is quite remarkable in terms of how sustainable it is,” says AquaGrow’s supervisor, Colin Cotton, the farmer since it began.
The fish are fed an aquaculture diet that is specifically formulated for their growth. While they may be growing in tanks, their feed, unlike pet food, must be safe for human consumption because the taste of the tilapia after it’s harvested is very much dependent on the quality of the feed, something Cotton is very much aware of. (Chances are you have had earthy-tasting tilapia, something Cotton makes sure to avoid.)
Fish Waste Used as Fertilizer
As the fish grow to about a kilogram, they generate 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 opted for LED lights (which require 70 per cent less electricity than grow lamps) to reduce energy requirements even further.
Cotton, along with the help of two volunteers, harvests 108 heads of greens every week and then distributes them the same day from their location directly to the food bank clients. While they’re currently growing romaine lettuce and bok choy, they have experimented with other greens, such as spinach and Swiss chard.
Trying new Crops
He was also testing a small number of trays of microgreens weekly, but has had to temporarily halt this side of the farm due to the demands the pandemic has brought to his job. He also works in the food bank’s warehouse but he’s hoping the microgreens project will be scaled back up at some point.
“As the microgreens are usually just grown on regular tap water and are very easy to grow on a small footprint, it was a natural step for us to include,” says Cotton. He adds, “The other greens, such as our lettuces, are grown on the fish waste-water which fertilizes them, but because micro greens only take about 10 days to grow, they don’t have that same nutrient demand that a larger, more mature plant would have.”
Corporate sponsors have supported the farm’s work this year, including Enbridge and Alectra, the electric utilities distributor in the region. Past sponsors have included the Ontario Trillium Foundation as well.
Farm Fresh Food
Prior to Covid-19, the farm also provided educational activities for the public to better understand the possibilities of urban agriculture. Cotton regularly led interactive, educational tours through the facility for students, community groups and businesses. Hopefully as the pandemic winds down, the Mississauga Food Bank will once again host these types of activities. But in the meantime, they are providing an invaluable source of farm-fresh food to some of the local people who need it most.