Foodchain’s Aquaponics: A loopy system


Environmental Fridays

Brianna Stanley

In America, there is a pervasive disconnect between our food system and the communities it serves– or doesn’t. Roughly 50 percent of produce is thrown away, 23.5 million people live in food deserts and an increasing number of children think that food originates in the supermarket (which is at least less worrying than the 7 percent of adults who, through no fault of their own, legitimately think that chocolate milk comes from brown cows).

In Lexington, there is a snazzy non-profit looking to address all these issues. Foodchain, located next to West Sixth Brewing, educates the public about sustainable food systems through guided tours of a closed-loop, indoor aquaponics farm and free healthy cooking classes. They also preserve extra food gleaned during summer for distribution in winter, and they hope to soon open up a grocery store to address the food desert in which they are located.

The term aquaponics is a mashup of “aquaculture” (farming aquatic animals or plants for food) and “hydroponics” (a method of growing plants without soil). In Foodchain, this takes the form of a Tilapia fish farm, connected by what our tour guide affectionately termed the “poop pipe” to a vat of bacteria-coated sponges that convert the ammonia in the fish waste into nitrates. These nitrates then flow via gravitational gradient into hydroponic beds of microgreens and lettuce. The greens uptake the nitrates as nutrients and a pump returns the now-filtered water back into the fish tanks.

This kind of farming, which uses the outputs of one product as inputs in the other, is known as a closed-loop system. Such a system can reduce water usage by  about 90 percent and reduces the need for expensive nitrogenous fertilizer (the over-application of which has many deleterious environmental effects). This, in turn, reduces the cost of the produce. At Foodchain, they sell their fish and produce directly to Smithtown Seafood within the same building, meaning that Smithtown has some of the freshest, lowest-carbon-footprint food in the state.

When I asked Becca, our extremely knowledgeable tour guide, what UK students could do to best assist Foodchain, she suggested the following: Volunteer or intern at Foodchain! Whether your interest is nutrition, chemistry of fish feed, or wrangling Tilapia, they welcome anyone to the team.

Go on the tour. It starts at 1 p.m. every Saturday and costs $10 per adult, $5 per kid. Donate.

Buy from Smithtown seafood. The three dollar tacos are comprised of fresh ingredients and greatness; to this I can attest.

Create your own DIY aquaponics farm!

Finally, she emphasized seeking out education. Our food system is broken in many ways, and a key step in change is knowledge of the key issues and the ways to combat them.

“It isn’t just about feeding people but nourishing the body, the community, and the planet,” is scrawled in large, colorful letter across one of Foodchain’s walls.

In my opinion, they are doing an excellent job of just that, and are worthy of any assistance that UK students are willing to give.