EAST CHICAGO — A Hoosier-made aquaponics system for growing organic fruits and vegetables with zero waste will be used to feed the hungry.
East Chicago officials and Glynn Barber, the inventor of the aquaponics system, were on hand Wednesday for the unveiling at the greenhouse at Washington Park.
The project with Environmentally Controlled Sustainable Integrated Agriculture of Redkey, Indiana, uses the waste produced by fish to supply nutrients to plants grown in 12 inches of water or hydroponically. The plants then purify the water, creating a closed-loop, zero-waste production mechanism.
The project will include transforming the greenhouse, training staff and growing organic food.
City Planner Marino Solorio said the produce grown in the greenhouse will primarily go to The Salvation Army food programs in the winter months and will be sold at local farmers markets in the summer months.
"We want to be able to provide affordable, healthy food," Solorio said. "A salad costs almost as much as a full-course meal in some restaurants. We want to drop prices of fresh vegetables."
Leta Marin, cadet with The Salvation Army of East Chicago, said the partnership is "a wonderful gift."
"We're passionate about not only providing food but nutritional food in our food pantry," Marin said.
Mayor Anthony Copeland committed $100,000 to the program. If successful, the city plans to apply for a $400,000 matching grant to allow for an $800,000 investment within four years.
Once the system is running, operators will add red claw crayfish to the tanks where the plants are growing to eat the dead roots. Doing so encourages healthy plant growth and feeds the crayfish, Barber said.
"The amount of produce that can be grown here can really impact the health of the community," he said.
The project will start with basil, kale and lettuce. Barber said it takes about a year for the system to fully develop, but yields begin quickly.
"You'll get a significant amount of produce in the next couple of weeks," he said.
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Eventually, rooting vegetables can be grown outside the system using a medium other than soil, he said.
The East Chicago system can grow 1,485 plants in the greenhouse, officials said. Barber said he has successfully grown 300 varieties of fruits and vegetables using the system.
"When people tell me there's a shortage of food in the world, it really irritates me," he said.
Barber began working on the system a decade ago in an effort to help his son, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, with the use of organic foods.
His son was prescribed traditional medications and was suicidal. Barber, who has six other children, began researching other treatment methods and built a prototype of the aquaponics system in his garage.
"We were too naive to know we shouldn't be able to do this," Barber said.
Since starting the program, his son is healthy and has been free of medications for more than six years. The profits from the company are being dedicated to mental health research, he said.
Barber expanded the project. Now there are eight systems operating, including one at a high school in Selma, Indiana, that is operated by students.
"We actually have an orphanage in Haiti that has an identical system," Barber said. "They're feeding 83 orphans and funding their operations."
Barber encouraged citizens to "check with us on a weekly basis. Hold our feet to the fire."
Solorio said if the program is successful, he hopes to see it expand beyond the greenhouse location.
"We have vacant industrial buildings here that could hold these things," he said.