Something “fishy” is going on in Jackson County, W. Va., and that is a good thing because people in need are being fed there through a unique “aquaponics” initiative.
The initiative, part of the ministry of Lifespring Community Church in Ravenswood, recently received a $700 Matthew 25 Grant from American Baptist Churches USA (ABCUSA) to repair a greenhouse central to the project.
What is aquaponics, you might ask? “Aquaponics gardening involves growing plants in water rather than soil,” explains Rev. Mary Beth McCloy, who has served Lifespring since May 2014. “Each plant is started in soil, and when it reaches a viable size is transferred to a floating ‘grow bed’ that allows the roots to reach way down into the water. The water is gravity-fed and flows past the plants to a tank at the end that pumps it back to the beginning. At the beginning is a large plastic tank filled with fish (in our case tilapia). The fish waste is drawn off into the grow beds, providing fertilizer for the plants. A well-established system can use some of the plants to feed the fish, but we have been using fish food. We have been doing this project for about a year and a half.”
Pastor McCloy explains she first learned about the aquaponics option from Mario Morales, an ABCUSA International Ministries missionary. “A couple of members of the church had heard about aquaponics as a small space gardening program,” she explains.
Lifespring is an example of what can be accomplished to make a difference even with fewer members and limited resources. “The church was begun in a basement with three families that wanted to do things that other churches weren’t doing and reach people that other churches weren’t reaching,” Pastor McCloy explains. About 40 people are connected with the church. “We wanted to make the most of the resources that God has given us, and we work in cooperation with other churches to do larger projects.” When the aquaponics project began, Lifespring worked in conjunction with an Hispanic congregation the church had partnered with before. Communidad Nueva Esperanza, Lifespring and some neighborhood friends held a planting party to get some seeds started.
“People from Lifespring donated wood and pipe to get the grow beds started,” Pastor McCloy says. “Communidad Nueva Esperanza donated seeds and soil. Our project is headed up by J.D. Critchfield, one of our members. He makes sure that the feeding and planting get done and that the water in the tanks is of good quality for both fish and plants. Other members help as needed, particularly when it is time to harvest and distribute the vegetables.”
“We had been renting a storefront in Ravenswood for a few years when Lifespring began,” Pastor McCloy says. “The store that had been there was a farm/garden store, and a greenhouse came with the building. At first, we tried to use it as a youth hangout, but it was just too hot in the summer. We used the greenhouse for storage for a while, but that seemed like a waste of the resource.” Then the idea for an aquaponics initiative was born.
“We already had a food pantry in town,” Pastor McCloy says, “and we didn’t want to duplicate something that was already being done. Food pantries usually have canned goods and dry goods. Proteins are limited to beans and peanut butter, and fresh vegetables aren’t usually given out. We also wanted a project that could include the community. Our intention is to use the food we provide to build relationships by inviting people to help plant, clean fish, etc. So far we have cooked the fish for people and used the meal time to talk with them and build connections.” Pastor McCloy says that during the conversations Lifespring members learned that most apartments in the one low-income project near the church had no stoves. “People in those apartments were only able to use foods that could be microwaved or eaten cold, so we had a big fish fry for them rather than just giving them a fish,” she says.
One of the advantages of an aquaponics program is that the greenhouse enables the growing of vegetables like kale, chard, spinach, arugula, leaf lettuce and other leafy greens year-round to be given away at any time. Tilapia also thrive in the environment as long as the water is not too cold.
The Matthew 25 Grant has played a crucial role in upgrading the greenhouse. It makes use of heavy-duty plastic coverings rather than glass to warm the interior. “When we applied for the grant, we knew our greenhouse plastic would need to be replaced,” Pastor McCloy explains. “We were beginning to see small tears in the plastic. The tears grew during summer storms, which led to rain and birds getting into the greenhouse. Thanks to the Matthew 25 Grant we were able to replace the plastic. A dozen people from the community came to help us. They removed the old plastic and recovered the greenhouse with two layers of new plastic. Some of the helpers do not worship at a church anywhere else. So, the project became an outreach opportunity for us.” Some of the grant money was used to buy new tilapia fingerings (very small baby fish) so the church could serve the largest tilapia to the community and continue the breeding process.
Pastor McCloy says that Jackson County has a 15 percent poverty rate. “Both the population of the county and the median income have been decreasing over the past few years,” she explains. The feeding initiative focuses on residents of several low-income apartment complexes near the center of town. “Every Wednesday for the last two years we provided lunch for anyone who is hungry,” she says. “We have recently been invited to be part of an initiative started by other churches to make our schools safer, including involving more Christian mentors and volunteers within the Ravenswood schools. We have done a number of outreach events for children as well. Because we are a small church, we have tended to focus our resources rather than doing a lot of different things.”
The Matthew 25 Grant initiative, sponsored by ABCUSA and the Board of General Ministries, is funded by a generous, anonymous donor whose goal is to meet the needs of “housing, feeding, education and health with regard to the less fortunate.” The application process for a Matthew 25 Grant is structured to help small ministries with limited staff time. For more information on the grant and application process visit www.abc-usa.org/matthew25/.