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Water for Food Deserts

Student Aquaponics Project Could Help County Grow Urban Agriculture in Empty Buildings

By Chris Carroll

Illustration of fish and plants growing in an aquaponics system

Illustration by Shutterstock

UMD students are working with Prince George's County to plan out an aquaponics system, in which plants and fish grow together to provide abundant food, to supply the needs of the surrounding community.

Can the blight of empty storefronts and blacked-out windows blossom into an indoor hub for healthy food for surrounding communities?

University of Maryland students and faculty this semester have been working to answer “yes” to that question with a plan to transform abandoned commercial buildings in Prince George’s County into centers of urban agriculture bursting with fresh vegetables and fish. The project, a capstone experience for Environmental Science and Technology (ENST) undergraduates, is supported by a collaboration between the county and the university’s Partnership for Action Learning in Sustainability (PALS) program.

“We’re helping the county develop a strategy to solve two problems at once: unoccupied or vacant buildings, and food insecurity that exists in some parts of Prince George’s County,” said Jose-Luis Izursa, a lecturer in the Department of Environmental Science and Technology, “We’re trying to do it with a novel idea of developing a food source, a place of employment and a center for education.”

Izursa, an environmental scientist who focuses on sustainable development, is leading an ENST class in designing an aquaponics food-producing system in an abandoned store. The term is a portmanteau of aquaculture, also known as fish farming, and hydroponics—crops grown without soil by adding plant food to water. While these methods have typically been pursued separately, it makes eminent sense to unite them, Izursa said.

“It’s a win-win situation, because the plants clean the water of fish waste, and at the same time, the fish are producing food for the plants—it’s what nature really does on a much larger scale,” he said.

After the county suggested a number of possible locations for the class to build a case study around, the students settled on an empty former Rite-Aid pharmacy in Suitland. The system calls for several 2,000-gallon tanks in the basement stocked with a native fish species such as bluegill, catfish or sturgeon. Filters will remove solids from fish waste to be processed by bacteria to make the nutrients usable by plants, and then the solution will be pumped to the upper floor to feed and water a variety of crops growing under energy-efficient lighting in hydroponic beds.

When fully up and running, the system could produce around 2,000 pounds of fish per year and  fresh vegetables.

“At the beginning of the class, I thought the reason why it wasn’t very widely used was that they don’t produce a lot, but that’s not true,” said Katherine Moses ’21  . “I was surprised at how much food these systems can produce.”

Just as important as the technical set-up is figuring out ways to meet community needs with the project, which won’t compete on a cost basis with a head of lettuce, for instance, grown on a massive farm in California and then trucked to the East Coast. But the students are considering ways to make an urban aquaponics setup valuable to the neighborhood where it exists, whether as a co-op where members can work on the system in exchange for food, or as a supplier for a community kitchen or restaurant staffed by locals.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has classified a number of locations in the county as “food deserts”—areas with no convenient access to grocery stores with fresh food. Prior to the pandemic, about one in seven country residents—about 130,000 people—suffered from food insecurity, according to a study by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and the Prince George’s County Planning Department. With economic losses from the coronavirus pandemic, the number is believed to have spiked since that estimate.

Brittney Drakeford, a special assistant to the Prince George’s County director of planning, has been working with the class to scout locations as well as meet with local investors interested in sustainability, planning directors, officials from the local soil conservation district and others, all of whom are intrigued by the project.

The county has long worked to increase local food production, particularly for underserved areas, and has even looked into aquaponics technology, she said. County residents, meanwhile, are pressing for more opportunities to raise their own food, even presenting a petition recently for a year-round indoor growing facility.

“What we’re hoping comes out of this is a business proposal or a business case so we can determine the pros and cons if we wanted to convert a vacant building for this use,” said Drakeford, who is studying for a doctoral degree in urban and regional planning and design in UMD’s School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. “How might we structure this entity so that it supports itself, meets the needs of the residents and has the most impact?”
 
The door appears open for following classes of Maryland students to carry the work forward to develop the idea into a real facility.

“We’re thinking of this as a ‘food house,’” Izursa said. “It would be a permanent location where successive classes of students can learn, where people can work at a job, and we’ll be targeting these food desert areas of Maryland with a sustainable, healthy alternative to fast food.”

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