Urban core students learn aquaponics and feed neighbors

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- As farmers harvest their crops during the fall, students at East High School also are reaping the benefits of an education in agriculture.

Students are learning how to raise tropical fish to help them grow a bumper crop of vegetables.

It's called aquaponics, and it's already being used in some urban core neighborhoods to grow fish and vegetables for people to eat.

"It’s absolutely wonderful to see the whole process in place," said Andrew Killen, a teacher at the school. "It takes a little bit of work up front but once everything is moving, the fish turn out wonderful, the produce turns out great and you can do it in a small space."

East High School had greenhouses and other facilities for an agriculture program that had not been used in years. So this year the school teamed up with Kansas City Aquaponics to put students on agriculture career paths by raising tilapia, a nutritious tropical fish, and using the fish waste to fertilize the a wide variety of vegetables grown in a closed loop ecosystem.

"We are actually in what’s known as a food desert," said Eric Person, owner of Kansas City Aquaponics. "A lot of kids that live in this neighborhood don’t have access to healthy nutritional food or food that isn’t processed. So it’s a program I feel should be in a lot of different schools, especially in the urban core."

A $4 million state grant helped re-establish the agriculture program at East. Students also are learning how to market the fish and vegetables they grow, although much of what they raise is given to families in the neighborhood, because nutritious whole foods are scarce in the central city.

As students become more successful at growing plants and raising fish, they also may sell their excess produce at a farmer's market at the school in the spring.