At the Mississauga Food Bank, in a large city near Toronto, a new aquaponic farm is growing both fish and fresh greens next to shelves of donated goods. "We've tucked a farm into the corner of our warehouse," says Chris Hatch, the food bank's executive director.
Hatch started reading about aquaponics—an farming system that uses fish to fertilize plants, and plants to purify the water—a few years ago, and realized that it could help the food bank fill shortages.
"It was becoming increasingly difficult to get fresh produce from our donors," he says. "We're in a very large urban setting, the sixth largest city in the country, and we have only one working farm left. All of the farmland's been paved over, so to speak, with condo towers and strip malls and parking lots."
The farm is relatively small, but can provide more than 10,000 servings of leafy greens or vegetables in a year, and 645 servings of fish. That's a small fraction of the meals the food bank provides, but it helps supplement existing donations, and it can easily be scaled up.
At the moment, one person manages the farm, spending from an hour a day to a full work day keeping it running. The farm is raising tilapia, an easy fish to manage, and lettuce as a crop.
"We're starting with a leafy green lettuce, because that's usually what you use if you're a beginner in aquaponics," says Hatch. "But there's no reason we can't grow tomatoes, beans, oranges, eggplants, even bananas. We envision trying different crops."
The food bank plans to give tours of the new farm, using it equally for education in urban farming as for the food itself. It also wants to use the farm to call attention to the fact that cities need more ways to get fresh, healthy food for people who can't afford to buy it.
In some rural communities, Hatch says, food banks may have the opposite problem—donations of so much produce that fruit and vegetables start to rot before they can be given away to families. But he expects that more urban food banks may start to use a similar model. (A few, like the Food Bank of Corpus Christi, already have.)
"I think we will see other food banks—and I'm going to guess it will be some of the larger, city-based food banks—that will adopt this," says Hatch. "I hope they will."