This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Food Management.
What used to be a trend has now become the standard. Whether you want to call it “farm to table” or “buying local,” sourcing ingredients responsibly and sustainably is the standard that every kitchen leader should adopt. Even in situations where the chef may be contracted with a small number of purveyors and locked into what is accessible, finding opportunities to get top-notch ingredients is something that I find to be an important part of feeding people responsibly.
Recently one of these opportunities presented themselves to me. I’m a chef at Mill Valley Care Center in Bellevue, Iowa. [editor's note: at the time of publication, Chad has accepted a new position at a different senior living facility in Iowa]. A teacher at the local high school reached out to me and asked me if I wanted some fresh basil. I said, “Of course,” and he brought it to me. I didn’t really know how they grew it, but didn’t ask any questions at that time. Then a few weeks later he asked me if I wanted some lettuce and kale. Now, my ears perked up, and I had to ask how they are accomplishing this at school. It’s the same high school I went to, and we definitely weren’t growing produce back when I was in school.
He told me that they had aquaponics and that they were growing different varieties of produce. I asked if I could see the operations, being super curious how it works and what’s involved. I took a tour and learned all about their operation.
The aquaponics program is through the Bellevue Big Program, which is a program designed for learning independence and responsibility. It teaches the students to manage their time correctly and gets them ready for the real world. They want the program to be heavily involved with the community and for the students to feel like they are in a real-life job situation.
The program began in 2016 with a small group of students exploring their passions and receiving core high school credits in a non-traditional environment. They had the local Department of Natural Resources (DNR) giving them about 100 catfish at the beginning of each year to release in the spring. The DNR helped them set up all the equipment and they decided to do tons of research and learn about aquaponics. They got grants to help pay for the equipment, and slowly started to experiment with growing produce. The program raises both the fish for nature and produces the food that they sell to me. I have gotten kale, basil, lettuce and fresh dill. They are currently growing some watercress, which I am very excited to use here at Mill Valley.
The aquaponics system is set up in various sections; the first section is the fish tank where the fish are stored and fed. The fecal matter produced by the fish then runs through the PVC pipe to the second section which is the filters. The filters help remove the excess food and large fecal matter from the water. From the filters the water then flows through a PVC pipe into the third section which is the grow bed. The grow bed is where we start and grow our plants until the harvest. The plants sit on form boards while their roots hang in the water where they receive the nutrients that the fish produce in the water. Then from the grow bed the water flows through another PVC pipe back into the fish tank. This cycle repeats itself while the system is pumping water.
The long-term goal for the program is to have a partnership with a restaurant or other food service provider within the community. They want to make it mutually beneficial for the program and the business. I think this is a fantastic program, and I know that as long as I have the ability to utilize this program, I will be the biggest supporter of them.
Chad Myers is a chef at Mill Valley Care Center, a nursing home with 40 residents and an assisted living side with about 18 tenants just nine blocks away from where he lives with his family in the small Iowa town of Bellevue. A longtime country club chef, Myers switched to senior dining and hasn’t looked back. He specializes in down-home Midwestern cuisine through his own fine-dining lens.