Second Harvest: Will What Worked for the Aztecs and the Indonesians Work for Us?

July 7, 2016
Photo by Charlie Leche
Photos by Charlie Leche

Pitch It! Winner Says Yes!

Gina Melita is a true believer that the ancient practice of aquaponics can inspire Second Harvest Food Bank to create fish farms and organically grown food systems for hungry communities across South Louisiana. It worked for the Aztecs, the Chinese and the Indonesians. Aquaponics will work for hungry Louisianians too.

Gina is the director of Second Harvest’s Community Kitchen and a newly converted aquaponics proposer and proselytizer. She made the pitch for Second Harvest’s aquaponics project during the 2014 Pitch It! The Innovation Challenge. The judges were impressed and energized by her vision of abundant organic produce and fresh fish harvested from a sustainable system that was also scalable to deploy to partner food pantries and hunger agencies in 23 South Louisiana parishes. In October 2014, the judges awarded $25,000 to the Second Harvest Food Bank for the development of the aquaponics proposal. The startup grant was funded by the Kresge Foundation.

Designing the Prototype

There was hardly time to celebrate before the Second Harvest team jumped headfirst into the world of aquaponics, a world that is all about balance and pumping, purifying and circulating water and nutrients to grow and sustain plants and fish through all seasons and natural cycles. Nothing is wasted in a well-balanced aquaponics system according to Geordan Lightfoot Smith, who joined Gina in 2015 as the chief farmer and evangelist in Second Harvest’s aquaponics initiative.

Second Harvest formed a working partnership with VertiFarms to design the farm, and Aquaculture Systems Technologies to design and build a prototype aquaponics system. The first VertiFarms collaboration was designed for a location inside the Second Harvest warehouse. It was large and ambitious, but it was also prohibitively expensive to maintain. So the Second Harvest/VertiFarms team went back to the drawing board and designed a smaller system of raised beds and a vertical fish tank to sit outside in front of the Second Harvest warehouse. The outside aquaponics installation has proven to be viable for growing a wide variety of herbs, vegetables, and greens. To hedge its bets against Mother Nature’s vicissitudes, the aquaponics team decided to install two movable hydroponic towers inside the Second Harvest warehouse. There’s no soil in the towers, just nutrient enriched circulating water. Artificial and natural light combine to create highly productive tower gardens that in different seasons are overflowing with basil, sage, fennel, cilantro, parsley, thyme, Swiss chard, lettuce, and kale.

Geordan Lightfoot Smith / hydroponics / Second Harvest Food Bank
Geordan Lightfoot Smith harvests fresh produce

Now Serving Fresh Organic Produce, the Fish are coming soon

The herbs, greens, and vegetables that are harvested from the inside tower gardens and the outside prototype beds at Second Harvest are incorporated into the thousands of hot meals that are prepared daily in Gina Melita’s Community Kitchen for distribution to senior citizens and schoolchildren. The promise of delivering fresh organic produce to the food stream via aquaponic farming that Second Harvest made is fulfilled. However, much work remains to be done to ramp up the protein side of the aquaponics equation. How to cultivate and grow high quantities of fresh fish in a balanced aquaponics system is next on the development agenda. Gina and Geordan are eager as always to take on the challenge.

Want to put your innovative ideas in action?

Pitch It! The Innovation Challenge is accepting applications, the deadline is August 5.