EDMONTON — Allison Stevenson doesn’t think she’ll have a problem catching a fish from the tank, scraping off its scales, pulling out its bones and serving it for lunch in the school cafeteria.
Just as long as it’s not the disabled little swimmer some fellow students have named Winky.
“I don’t think we should eat the one that has one eye,” says Stevenson, a Grade 11 student at Edmonton’s Jasper Place High School.
“It’s special. He’s like our classroom pet.”
Their teacher warned them about getting attached to the 100 tilapia donated by an Alberta fish farm and transported to the school in early December. By spring, the fish will be full-sized and destined for a frying pan.
It’s all part of a unique project that teaches students about the cycle of life, the environment and the food they eat.
Hydroponic grow beds with vegetables and herbs sit on top of the school’s largest fish tank. Through various hoses, water and waste from the fish feed the plants. The plants clean water that’s returned to the fish tank. And scraps of vegetables left over from cooking are then fed to the fish.
It’s a big idea that takes place in a small corner of the school’s culinary classroom.
Grade 12 student Dakota Laboucane takes a break from baking cookies to give the fish some wilting, shredded lettuce.
He’s already coming up with mouth-watering recipes for using the flaky, white flesh in fish tacos and a version of coconut barramundi.
“All of it will be fresh and used the same day,” says the 17-year-old, who wants to train as a professional chef after he graduates.
Through the culinary program, students get credit for college apprenticeship. They spend hours in the school’s commercial-style kitchen cooking a healthy lunch each day for 2,500 students and staff. As if they weren’t busy enough, they also do catering on the side.
Now they’re hooked on fish.
“I think that having a fresh, healthy food source is a really great idea,” says Laboucane. “A lot of students don’t have enough fish in their diets.”
He admits he is one.
Teacher Dustin Bajer spearheaded the project, after first helping the school establish a rooftop greenhouse as well as a farm forest in the courtyard that was once populated by smokers.
With help from 15 regular members of the school’s permaculture club, the gardens yield dozens of different plants — everything from tomatoes and zucchini to, they hope someday soon, grapes and kiwi fruit. And it all goes to the school’s kitchen.
Bajer says the food project casts a wide enough net to teach most people in the school some lessons.
The permaculture and culinary students are primarily taking care of the fish and plants. But because there are so many fish, and they’re growing bigger, some are also swimming in tanks in a computer technology classroom.
Chemistry students have been tasked with doing research into the science that makes the tiny eco system work, says Bajer.
And there’s even a bit of sex education. Students are trying to identify the female fish and get them to breed.
The idea is to never run out of fish and eventually add new flavours to the tanks. The school has a commercial fishing licence that allows them to expand their tiny water farm to include other types of fish like salmon, eel and prawns.
And there could be more related projects on the way. Bajer says students are thinking big — Moby Dick big.
Some have talked about putting bicycle-powered generators in the school’s cafe to charge their cellphones and laptops. So why not produce energy to make their food?
“There’s a fitness centre here. There are spin classes. How many generators could we get going? Could we basically produce enough electricity to at least offset the costs of the lights for the aquaponics system?” asks Bajer.
“Then it’s off the grid.”
He jokes that the school could lock its doors and everyone inside would survive on their own, eating fish and vegetables.