Aquaponics as Community Development

by Jimmy Dorrell

Two months ago, nine water trays were installed in the new greenhouse purchased by Mission Waco, next door to the newly established Jubilee Food Market, in Waco, TX. Many have asked why a Christian community development, non-profit organization, which works constantly to raise enough money for traditional programs for the homeless, unemployed, addicted, urban youth, and marginalized would spend such time, energy, and money to create an aquaponics system in the middle of a low-income neighborhood.

Jimmy & Janet Dorrell in Mission Waco’s greenhouse

There are several reasons…


Global and Local Realities

Surprisingly to some, the answer to why we have built a greenhouse and hydroponics system is not based on a younger, hipster trend that is enthralled with organic food and new urbanism. For us, it is because of the poor we serve, both in Waco and in Haiti. In 1984, my wife, two boys, and I moved to Haiti to work with a hunger organization focused on training some of the poorest residents in the Western hemisphere about how to survive chronic malnourishment through small growbeds. Unlike American soil, the land in the impoverished island-nation had been ravaged by soil erosion as the early conquerors cut down the beautiful trees and exported them to their own countries with little care for the impending results. Through the years, Haiti and nations alike became victims of an environmental crisis that impacts their citizens’ basic resources. A once beautiful Caribbean country, now struggles to feed its own population and provide clean drinking water for far too many children, who frequently die from the pathogens in river water.

Americans are often numb to such global atrocities, especially since we have access to so much of the world’s resources. We literally throw away 21.5 million tons of wasted food each year and use 24% of total household clean water consumption in our toilets. But even in our own American communities, 13 percent of our “neighbors” go hungry.

Theologically Sound
Francis got it right…all three of them!

Practical theology is the motivation behind the obvious need for better “creation care.” In the early thirteenth century, St. Francis of Assisi became known for his love for the poor before later being associated with patronage for animals and the natural environment. He taught that the world was created good and beautiful by God but suffers a need for redemption because of the primordial sin of man. Current Pope Francis took on St. Francis’ namesake because of these associations. While Pope Francis’ teaching has sparked renewed interest in this area, Catholics have a strong history of valuing creation. Environmental care is one of the strands of Catholic social teaching.

Francis Schaeffer, a Protestant theologian, wrote Pollution and the Death of Man, suggesting that we need an ecological conversion. He lamented that, “much of evangelical Christianity had adopted a dualistic view of the world that did not take nature seriously.” Christianity Today states that, “white evangelicals now consistently poll among the least concerned about such issues.” For Francis Schaeffer, our shared finiteness created a bond of common grace with the rest of creation that calls for responses of stewardship, regardless of ones religious worldview.

In Genesis 1:28, we receive God’s expectation that everyone should be good stewards of His creation. “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’”

The theology of common grace assumes that Christian justice demands that the creation must be protected, because every thing and every person is made in the image of God. Yet, many of today’s Christians have hijacked this mandate as “liberal” or unnecessary, even when statistics profoundly show global deterioration of God’s perfect ecology that affect basics of food, water, land and weather.

Jimmy Dorrell with auquaponics system installed by ECSIA

What is Aquaponics?
Hydroponics and aquaponics are unique, productive, agricultural responses to our world’s environmental status that Christians can use to promote healthy environmental impact and alternatives, both in our own communities and around the world. Aquaponics is the cultivation of fish and plants together in a constructed, recirculating ecosystem utilizing natural bacterial cycles to convert fish waste to plant nutrients. It uses only 10 percent of the water of traditional agriculture, produces the highest nutrient dense food, and is not restricted to any single growing season. The food also tastes better and helps the local economy. For us, at Mission Waco, some is sold in our non-profit grocery store next door, the Jubilee Food Market. While small backyard systems can be designed, even larger ones can be established in communities. We worked with Glynn Barber, creator of the unique ECSIA system, to install and train our team. He provided incredible support while we developed the ecosystem. ECSIA has four modules, and ours will produce 350-500 pounds of fish annually, 189-297 pounds of lettuce/kale weekly, and over 500 pounds of crawfish annually.

Urban R.E.A.P.
Mission Waco’s Urban REAP (“renewable energy & agriculture project”) is located in the middle of one of the poorest neighborhoods in our city. The new aquaponics system is surrounded by thirty-six solar panels, a 3,000-gallon rainwater catchment tank, a commercial composting system, and a teaching deck for neighborhood residents and outside groups to come learn about God’s incredible and sustainable ecosystem and how we can push back against the pollution destroying it. Urban REAP sells the food, flowers, compost, and fish & crawfish used in the aquaponics system. Our goal is for the entire project to be completely financially sustainable.

36 solar panels atop Mission Waco’s Urban R.E.A.P.

Christian Community Development Needed
For over three decades, our urban ministry has been empowering the poor, restoring buildings, and addressing systemic issues, which oppress those we serve. However, only in recent years have we created a non-profit grocery store in our neighborhood, which was once considered a food desert, and begun to address urban food issues from a developmental perspective. The future of non-profit organizations, like food pantries, may do well to focus less on “betterment” & hand-outs and more on addressing the deeper issues that affect our under-resourced neighbors at the core.

While aquaponics should certainly be included as one example, we as the Body need to step up and lead by example through comprehensive projects in distressed neighborhoods that include the poor as partners through education and hands-on involvement. We need for those in the pulpits of our nation to embrace a holistic biblical theology and preach it as part of our call of obedience to the God who created the Garden of Eden and said, “it is very good.”

Jimmy Dorrell is the Executive Director of Mission Waco/Mission World & President of the Texas Christian Community Development Network.

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