Food Pantry Aims to Feed Thousands in Waco with Aquaponics

Jul 30, 2014

A food pantry in the heart of North Waco is taking a different approach to feeding the thousands they see coming through their doors throughout the year. And as KWBU’s Jill Ament explains, less is more in creating produce with aquaponics.

Dr. Michael Kemp is showing me a model of an aquaponics system. Aquaponics is a way to quickly grow plants using the nutrients that come from fish as fertilizer. Kemp created an aquaponics setup in his backyard for The Shepherd’s Heart Food Pantry in Waco. He’s a board member and engineer for the Pantry.

"I've got 15 goldfish in here. There you can see one," Dr. Kemp explains as he shows the system. "The pump from the waterfall... I tap off the pump at the waterfall and tap it off that line up into that holding tank. It's 15 gallons."

So how exactly does an aquaponics system work?

Dr. Kemp’s model pumps water from a small fish tank, into a container at the top of a three level shelf. When the top container gets full, the water is released down to the second level where plants grow in a 4-foot by 4-foot garden bed filled with small pebbles.

The same thing happens at the bottom level of the system – another bed holding more plants is filled with the recycled water. Today Kemp is growing lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and squash. When that bottom tank fills up– it goes back to the fish tank – where goldfish then feed off of the byproducts of the plants – and the plants feed off the byproducts of the fish.

In this symbiotic system, it only takes about 30 days to harvest the produce using minimal amounts of water and resources.

Robert Gager is the director of Shepherd’s Heart Food Pantry. He’s hoping to use produce grown by aquaponics to help alleviate hunger in Waco.

“We’ve got a poverty rate twice the national average," says Gager.  "We’ve got problem after problem. Food desert, after food desert, after food desert.”

Shepherd’s Heart pantry is located off of Bosque Blvd. in North Waco. They serve close to 700 adults and children and 400 seniors a week in that area.

Gager says the pantry’s food supply has been depleted after helping out with disasters in the past few years like the Bastrop fires in 2011 and the West Fertilizer Plant explosion in 2013.

“I have been looking for a solution," said Gager. "Been praying for a solution really.”

And he and Dr. Kemp are expanding the model, opening up a large aquaponics system on a little less than three acres of land TSTC has provided for them.

“With what we expect to do we’ll have enough land out there to grow enough crops for at least 2,000 people," said Gager. 

Gager says he’ll be able to feed that many on a monthly basis. TSTC and Shepherd’s Heart will be teaching others about aquaponics from the new facility.

Gager hopes besides bringing back produce to his food pantry -- they’ll also distribute their harvest through a farmers market. And they’re hoping to open up a mobile food truck with the World Hunger Relief farm.

Funds still need to be raised: around $25,000. That’s something Gager is hopeful about.

"Once we’ve built the building, it doesn’t take that much funding to get the thing going," said Gager. "As we get it going we can just keep adding on to it.”

Meanwhile... the biggest challenge for Dr. Kemp?

“Um. Tomatoes. Cause they take up so much room.”