Teach: Johns Hopkins University Food Systems Lab

This semester my food-themed Honors English 101 has been exploring issues of food justice through our class discussions and texts. One of the books we read was Will  Allen’s Good Food Revolution. It’s an extraordinary story that details Allen’s relationship with agriculture and how he came to establish a year-round urban farm in a food desert neighborhood of Milwaukee. Despite the many challenges, his farm brings jobs, fresh food, and hope to a neighborhood in need. His innovation has been honored with a McArthur grant and he serves as a global urban farming ambassador.

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Will Allen’s inspiring book traces his own roots and the roots of his Growing Power organization. (Image: Amazon)

“Education should be transformative,” I tell my students, “it should not only transform you but you should also use what you are learning to transform our community and world to make it better and more just.” In this vein, earlier in the semester my students coordinated a food drive to benefit Frederick Community Action Agency. At the conclusion of the drive, we visited FCAA for a tour of their facilities, to organize their donations into their food bank, and to learn more about how to combat food insecurity in our community. Since demographic data indicates that more people will live in cities in the future, it is critical that we figure out how to feed people in cities fresh and affordable food.

Baltimore food access map detailing food deserts and access points. (Image: JHU Food Systems Lab)

Our capstone field trip focused on urban food systems in Maryland’s largest city, Baltimore. Our day begin at the beautiful Cylburn Arboretum  near Pimlico, home of the Preakness, in Northwest Baltimore.

Group photo with Cylburn mansion.

 

Baltimore City donated land to Johns Hopkins University’s School of Public Health, Center for a Livable Future for a teaching greenhouse. Home to the Johns Hopkins University Food System Lab, the staff there host educational groups to teach them more about aquaponics.

JHU Food Lab mission overview. (Image: JHU Food Systems Lab)

 

They also visit Baltimore City schools to help them start their own hydroponic systems and align activities with their school curricula.

Our guides, Lizzie and Kenai.

Aquaponics is an agricultural method that combines aquaculture and hydroponics.  This method may be of great use for future farming since it eliminates issues with run off and water use. Fertilizer runoff contaminates waterways and can lead to dead zones, such as those seen in the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico. Traditional agriculture methods use 75% of our water supply. It is also an ideal farming method for urban environments since plants are not grown in  and potentially contaminated by urban soil pollutants and does not require a great deal of space.

Tilapia aquaculture tanks in foreground.

Johns Hopkins Food Systems Lab uses a closed system that begins with fish tanks, in which are grown tilapia. From there the fish water enters the filtration system and then moves on to the aquaponic and soil beds for plants.

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Plant beds and potted plants in the greenhouse. The large plant to the left is a banana tree.
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Plants in the aquaponic bed float on styrofoam “boats” as their roots reach down into the water for nutrients.

Finally, the water that exits the plant beds goes back into the fish tanks. Tilapia are omnivorous fish that adapt well to farming; the fish are purchased by a local restaurant, Woodberry Kitchen, and have also been sold to a cooking school in the past. They grow a variety of plants including swiss chard, lettuce, cilantro, and sorrel.

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Students had a taste of the sorrel.

Graduate students working at the food lab are researching ways to minimize costs and maximize profit to make it a more sustainable model.

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Lizzie and Kenai with some of the plants, including heirloom tomatoes.

The Food Systems Lab also uses vermicomposting, which uses Red Wiggler worms to help break down plant and food scraps into compost. This compost is then used for the soil beds in the greenhouse. This saves money on purchasing fertilizer, prevents sending unnecessary materials to the landfill, and reduces carbon emissions from rotting plants and food.

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A peek inside the worm bin shows a mix of rich compost and plant waste.
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This was a sleepy little worm on a chilly morning.
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A vermicomposting bin is simple to set up and works well in areas with limited space.

The Food System Lab’s goal is to create an efficient and profitable system that can be used in a range of environments. The greenhouse heater only kicks on at 32° to keep the temperatures inside above freezing. The main costs are the heating of the fish tanks and the fish feed. The Food Systems Lab is an adaptable project with tweaks being made to the system as more data are collected and methods are implemented. Currently the lab farm manager is at Earth University in Costa Rica to learn more about their model aquaponics system which uses innovations such as vertical farming and rainwater collection.

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Tilapia makes an appearance. (Image: JHU Food Systems Lab)

Johns Hopkins Food Systems Lab allowed students to see some of the urban farming methods that they had read about in Good Food Revolution first hand. It served as a model for considering an innovative form of farming that could bring fresh food to cities with limited open space, water supplies, and contaminated soil. This aquaponics method also reduces the carbon footprint of trucking fresh food into cities from farms and can bring jobs and resources to urban communities. It is an elegant model with myriad benefits but not without challenges. To learn more, check out JHU’s Center for a Livable Future’s web page; it also includes a link to a free online course on the US food system via Coursera. After being inspired by Will Allen and our visit the Food Systems Lab, I think I will be enrolling in this course to expand my own knowledge of our food system.

This was my first blog post in this 3 part series about our urban food systems Baltimore field trip. Please stay tuned for my second, about Lexington Market, and my third, about Baltimore Food Hub.

Do you have your own garden? Do you use any innovative growing methods? Please share in the comments. Thanks!


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