Tuesday, June 22, 2021
Farming Fish for School Lunches and More
Tanner Lee makes a catch.
Monday, May 17, 2021


As classes ended for the day, Bridget Evans and Isabelle Thompson went fishing.

Not in the icy cold Trail Creek waters streaming past the Sun Valley Community School but in the school greenhouse in the center of the school campus. There, the two dipped large fish nets into two of four round blue fish tanks teaming with tilapia.

Within seconds each pulled out a squirming fish 15 inches long, which they laid on the floor where fellow classmate Robby Cullen deftly bonked them on the head with a hammer and dropped them in a bucket.

Isabelle Thompson and Bridget Evans show off some of their aquaponic starts.

These and other students like Tanner Lee have been caring for the fish since last year, nurturing them from small fry to full-grown fish ready for the dinner plate.

They’ve harvested some for school lunches served up in the Sun Valley Community School Café. These particular fish were destined to be seasoned, grilled and served up as fish tacos for the Community Kitchen Table—a new effort by Community School and Wood River High School students to bring community together over a picnic table.

“We chose tilapia because they’re a hardy fish,” said Cullen. “They can withstand differences in temperature of about 10 degrees. And they put on a pound for every pound of fish food you feed them. It’s been cool to experience the food chain.”

The fish, which take about eight months to grow to the point where they’re suited for a dinner plate, haven’t just been fodder for tummies. Their waste has also been used to fertilize lettuce, chard and other plants that the students are growing in their aquaponic garden opposite the fish tanks.

Robby Cullen and Bridget Evans show off one of the tilapia destined for fish tacos.

Those veggies also have been used for school lunches.

“With the fish food, we’re not using pesticides and chemicals—the fish poop is the perfect fertilizer,” said Thompson.

“And this form of gardening takes up less space,” added Evans.

The students grow small starts from seed in the greenhouse, then plant the starts in circular holes cut into a sheet of very fine recycled foam. The foam raft is suspended above water in a tank, with the fish excrement piped into the water to fertilize the plants. As the plants grow, bundled roots grow six inches or longer, visible in the soil free container.

Bridget Evans checks the root of a chard.

“We could also use peat moss if we wanted,” said teacher Scott Runkel. “This is a great project. It teaches the kids responsibility, how to run a system like this. It also teaches the biology of how everything works and how it translates to the real world.”

 The student fish farmers have to feed the fish every day, even during summer when classes aren’t in session. They also have to drain and clean the tanks a couple times a week. And, should the power go out, someone has to check on the operation.

One of the fish being raised is Mozambique tilapia, a dull greenish fish native to southeastern Africa that can live up to a decade in its native habitats. It’s a popular fish for aquaculture due to its robust nature.

The other is the Nile tilapia, a species native to northern Africa, Israel and Lebanon that can live up to 10 years. The Nile tilapia has been featured in paintings and sculptures of Ancient Egypt, including an ancient Egyptian tomb that shows them in man-made ponds, suggesting that aquaculture existed 4,000 years ago.

Isabelle Thompson, Terry Town and Calysta Phillips filet the harvested fish.

“Tilapia is a good flaky white fish,” said Evans.

Aquaculture is believed to be the wave of the future as ocean fishing struggles to meet the demand for seafood. By 2030 it’s estimated that 62 percent of seafood produced for human consumption will come from aqua farming, up from 50 percent today.

Terry Town, who helped show the youngsters how to filet the fish, studied fish farming at the College of Southern Idaho.

“I love how efficient it is,” he said. “All it takes is a small space in a greenhouse and you have a wonderful source of protein.”



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