The Downtown Chattanooga YMCA is now home to an aquaponics greenhouse and raised garden beds capable of producing 10,000 pounds of food a year.
Aquaponics involves raising fish and growing plants together in a closed-loop system that basically functions as a self-contained ecosystem. Waste from the fish is pumped through the plant beds, where it is absorbed as fertilizer and filtered by the plants.
HATponics Sustainability Initiative, a nonprofit organization that provides vocational training for aquaponics-based food production, has partnered with the YMCA to implement the training of workers with disabilities from Orange Grove Center.
Molly Boyd, greenhouse manager for YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga, said YMCA day care and summer camp participants will also assist in the food production while learning about science, technology, engineering and math concepts.
The aquaponics greenhouse has been operating since mid-March and three Orange Grove clients have already started farming, said Jami Brown, executive director of HSI.
"They're able to dig holes, hold tools, plant things and watch them grow," she said, explaining how participating in the growing process is therapeutic for her Orange Grove clients, in addition to teaching them vocational skills. "It's important to see the process from beginning to end to get an understanding of the cycle of life."
Growing plants also helps with dexterity, and the sound of the water can calm those with behavioral disorders, added Brown.
The plants being grown include different kinds of lettuce and greens, okra, tomatoes, kale, chard and squash, she said.
So far, the food produce has been donated to the Chattanooga Area Food Bank and the Chattanooga Mobile Market. But since part of the plan was for the beds and greenhouse to be sustainable, they do need to make some profit, said Brown. So while maintenance and upkeep costs are minimal, they do plan to sell some of the produce through the Harvested Here Food Hub.
In addition to fresh vegetables, Boyd said the system is also producing catfish, bluegill and bass.
She said the YMCA plans to offer a teen program that would pay inner-city kids a stipend for providing the garden's upkeep, giving them income as well as allowing them to build on their knowledge and skill sets.
Volunteers are always needed to help with planting and harvesting, said Boyd. If interested, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about HATponics, visit hatponics.com.