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What are 300 tilapia doing in a Toronto high school? Add to ...

Every morning when he arrives at school, Cody Sponagle, a whippet-thin 17-year-old, feeds the fish in Classroom S1 in Bendale Business and Technical Institute, in central Scarborough.

But this is no ordinary student chore.

Mr. Sponagle and a handful of his classmates in Bendale’s “green industries” program are responsible for raising 300 tilapia in a pair of thousand-gallon tanks that represent the largest school-based “aquaponic” fish farming operation in Canada, and possibly North America. “It’s a pioneering program,” said Leif Loponen, Mr. Sponagle’s teacher.

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“We’ve been learning how to grow the fish, feed them properly, and learning how the filters work,” explained the soft-spoken Grade 12 student, who helped set up the $5,000 second-hand equipment last year.

The tilapia were minuscule when they arrived last spring, but they are now four to five centimetres long, Mr. Sponagle added, scooping one out with a net.

Bendale’s remarkable fish-farm project, however, is just one component of a highly energized school-wide experiment that links local food production, improved nutrition, community outreach and even a bit of savvy food marketing.

It all started four years ago on a distinctly sour note, in the wake of a September, 2008, shooting near Bendale that forced a two-hour lockdown and left a 16-year-old with gunshot wounds to the abdomen.

As the school and students sought to reclaim the grounds, they decided to create vegetable gardens and expand a partnership with FoodShare, an entrepreneurial west-end non-profit that distributes fresh fruit and vegetables to community nutrition programs and improves food literacy in the city’s schools.

Today, Bendale – built 50 years ago on what had been farmland – is ringed with several large vegetable plots that total half an acre; this year, they yielded almost 500 kilograms of produce. The school’s considerable bounty includes green beans, beets, carrots and cherry tomatoes, as well as herbs like basil, rosemary and parsley.

The current goal of the fish farm, which keeps expanding – and now involves the collection of fish waste for use as fertilizer to raise lettuce and watercress – is to supply food for a school-wide fish banquet next spring. The tilapia recipes will be developed by the students in the culinary arts program, which is run by Steve Taylor, a gruff but good-natured teacher who regards himself as Bendale’s version of the celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey.

In a greenhouse near the fish farm, students also grow Scotch bonnet and the extraordinarily spicy ghost peppers.

Like a microcosm of the city’s food distribution system, Bendale’s plots are just the beginning of an integrated production and marketing operation. Over the summer, Bendale hired five students to tend the gardens and run a popular farmers’ market, which operates Tuesdays in front of the school and does a particularly brisk business in those super-hot greenhouse peppers. Earlier this fall, the school used some of the produce in a welcome banquet for the parents of Grade 9 students.

Meanwhile, in Bendale’s industrial kitchens, Mr. Taylor’s culinary-arts students use Bendale-grown produce in the meals they produce for healthy cafeteria lunches.

They’ve also prepared preserves, like tangy pickled wax beans, which are branded and sold at the farmers’ market stall. The market continued operating until last week, when they’d finally gone through most of the fall harvest.

Such was this year’s yield, in fact, that there’s been enough for FoodShare to distribute some of the crops for morning snack programs run by a few local elementary schools, says Justin Nadeau, who co-ordinates the program and helped secure grants for the aquaponic equipment. “Today,” he said on a rainy morning this week, “we’re hoping to harvest more celery and take it to a Catholic school nearby.”

The latest addition to Bendale’s food-based educational smorgasbord is a “blender bike” that also arrived this week, thanks to a grant from the Trillium Foundation. On Wednesday, 39 students took turns riding the contraption – half a stationary racing bike with a blender mounted on the rear fender – and making themselves nutritious breakfast smoothies.

Indeed, faced with a building full of teenagers with teenager-sized appetites, Bendale’s teachers are keenly aware of the educational and nutritional dividends that have taken root out in the yard and now in the fish farm.

“It’s phenomenal,” said principal Wendy Blain as she sat in the classroom with the fish farm, looking on in bemusement as Mr. Sponagle and his classmates dared one another to sample a freshly picked Scotch bonnet.

“It’s field to fork, right?”

And from fork on to mind.

Yannick’s Rice

Bendale’s culinary arts teacher Steve Taylor knows that many of his students are heading into the hospitality industry, and so he likes to run the school kitchen like a bona fide workplace, which means barked orders, spotless counters and quick turn-around times. “These guys at Christmas last year, we did 500 turkey dinners in 37 minutes,” he said, beaming. “That was an all-time record for us.”

One morning this week, he watched attentively as Yannick Smith, a Grade 12 student, put the finishing touches on two large steamer trays of a fried-rice dish known around Bendale as “Yannick’s Rice.” Mr. Smith developed the savoury recipe over the fall, using a novel combination of local and international ingredients that mirror Scarborough itself. “Sir told me to make it one day, and he tried it and loved it,” Mr. Smith said with a grin.

He offered to share the recipe:

  • Pre-cooked rice
  • Cooked chicken, sliced into morsels
  • Green peas, chopped carrots, onions and cherry tomatoes harvested from Bendale’s garden plots
  • “Yannick seasoning” – jerk sauce, soy sauce, cracked black pepper and ginger

Yannick’s Rice sells for a $1 a serving, exclusively in Bendale’s cafeteria.

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