May 25, 2011

Pop-up restaurant features student-grown fish, herbs, vegetables

Clad in white lab coats and goggles, high school interns from New York City's Food and Finance High School listened intently as Cornell University Cooperative Extension (CUCE-NYC) scientist Philson Warner demonstrated how to harvest produce they had grown. The food was served at a fundraising dinner for the Food and Finance High School and CUCE Hydroponics Aquaponics After School Science and Technology Program May 20 at the Food Network studios.

The students worked with a chef and a caterer to prepare a six-course meal featuring tilapia fish from the aquaculture lab and a variety of herbs and vegetables grown in the hydroponics aquaponics lab.

Warner directs the hydroponics, aquaculture and aquaponics learning labs. Students at Food and Finance High School learn basic scientific principles through hands-on research, grow food produced by the labs and use the food in the high school's culinary arts program.

Herbs and vegetables for the event are grown in the hydroponics aquaponics lab, where the plants use byproducts from the fish tank as nutrients to help them grow; the plants in turn clean the water for the fish, which is recirculated into the fish tanks.

"As byproducts from fish waste build up over time, they can compromise the health of the fish, and can eventually kill the fish. The waste goes to the hydroponics, where the plants use up the waste product, and then sends back clean, treated water back to the fish," said Warner. "This is a closed, sustainable system, and this is sustainability at its best."

Tilapia featured on the menu were grown in the basement of the Food and Finance High School. Each blue tank contains approximately 1,000 fish grown on sustainable aquaculture technology developed by Warner 15 years ago. Water from the tanks is cyclically treated every half hour to an hour to remove waste. In six to nine months, the four cluster culture tanks of one of the aquaculture systems produce about 8,000 pounds of fish.

"Students from the program do the water quality analyses in the lab, and they are very efficient at their work," said Warner. "Being involved in research work makes a difference when you move on to college."

According to Jessica Mates, CUCE coordinator for the Food and Finance High School, about 30 students participated in the dinner; about 12 cooked and the rest served. Funds raised from the event will help students at the public high school with college application fees, scholarships, extracurricular activities and culinary training.

Farhan Nuruzzaman '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.