Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Fish Food: Steel-High’s aquaponics program yields school-to-table fare.

Screenshot 2016-01-26 21.18.37Order a dish in a local restaurant—let’s say Mangia Qui, Home 231 or Garlic Poet—and the food on your plate may well be locally grown.

No big deal, right? After all, farm-to-fork is all the rage.

But when I say locally grown, I mean locally grown—like a mile away. And available any time of the year. And raised by school-kid farmers.

Your lettuce, arugula or basil may have originated from the Steelton-Highspire School District, which, last year, launched an aquaponic greenhouse program and quickly found local markets for its goods.

So, what’s an aquaponic greenhouse? It’s a combination of aquaculture, or fish farming, with hydroponics—the science of growing plants in water without soil—into an interdependent system that produces fish, feedstock, fruit and vegetables year-round in a climate-controlled environment.

The aquaponic system filters water from its fishery operations, which, in turn, fertilizes its crops through fish waste. Clean water then is returned from the plants back to fish.

The Steelton-Highspire School District is the perfect site for such a venture, said Bob Welsh, founder and director of the Wheelhouse, a program of Jump Street, a Harrisburg-based organization focused on youth empowerment.

“This school district had an available plot of land and a real eagerness to learn about science, as well as a visionary administration and faculty,” said Welsh. “It’s a good fit.”


Cutting Edge

The Steel-High greenhouse is a collaboration of Aggreco International and the Wheelhouse School to Table Education Program, funded largely through donations and by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. After two years, the district will have the option of taking over the costs to continue the program.

Aquaponic programs also are maintained on a smaller, classroom-level scale at Marshall Math Science Academy and SciTech High in the Harrisburg School District, the Milton Hershey School and several locations in the Philadelphia area.

“It’s cutting edge. It’s a great educational program,” said Steel-High Acting Superintendent Travis Waters. “It’s a great experience and educational opportunity for our kids.”

Junior/Senior High School Principal Mick Iskric, Jr. shares that passion.

“My thought process is that, when any kid is given an opportunity, they rise to the occasion,” Iskric said. “Our juniors and seniors are getting college credits, internship and mentorship through this. They’re making resources that will last them for the rest of their careers. The kids took it and ran with it. They picked it up in a week.”

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Much Healthier

So far, mostly 11th– and 12th-graders have worked in the greenhouse, but all students in grades K-12 get a chance to come into the greenhouse and see how things work.

Waters said that district administrators are developing a multi-grade curriculum for the program. Older students even work in the facility for pay during the summer months.

Zuleyka Folk, a junior, and seniors Jessica Cunningham and Katie Jorich work in the greenhouse during the school year as part of their chemistry class. They were selected for the job as top students with dual enrollment at Harrisburg University.

“This is how the world will be eating in 50 years,” noted Cunningham of Steelton.

“It’s a much healthier way to grow food,” said Folk of Highspire. “There’s not as much contamination as there is with growing food in soil. There’s no spraying of chemicals, either. I like seeing the changes in the ecosystem and how the plants change over time.”

“I love teasing the fish,” joked Jorich of Steelton.

The greenhouse is host to a wide variety of more than 4,000 growing plants, as well as an abundant fish community comprised of tilapia and Malaysian prawn. The plants provide a multitude of collard greens, chard, mint, bok-choy, onions, beets, kale, basil, lettuce, watercress and more. A tropical plant section provides bananas, mangos and cocoa beans.

The fish aren’t forgotten either. Duckweed is grown as fish food.

Fish and produce are delivered to a number of restaurants and markets within a 15-mile radius of the greenhouse.

“Our idea is to build these close to everything to lower the transportation costs,” Welsh said. “Then we can have super-low prices.”


From Steelton to You

In the Harrisburg area, Steel-High aquaponic greenhouse products can be found at:

  • Café 1500, 6th and Reily streets, Harrisburg
  • Garlic Poet Restaurant and Bar, 148 Sheraton Dr., New Cumberland
  • Home 231, 231 North St., Harrisburg
  • Lancaster Brewing Company, 469 Eisenhower Blvd., Swatara Township
  • Mangia Qui, 272 North St., Harrisburg
  • Radish and Rye, Broad Street Market, Harrisburg
  • Rubicon, 270 North St., Harrisburg
  • Stock’s on 2nd, 211 N. 2nd, Harrisburg
  • Suba, 272 North St., 2nd floor, Harrisburg
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