Aleigh Acerni
August 13, 2012

Sweet Water Foundation’s hands-on program

Photo courtesy Richard Beauchamp

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Sweet Water Foundation’s educational programs focus on sustainability and hands-on training.

Sweet Water Organics, an urban fish and vegetable farm in Milwaukee, Wis., uses aquaponics systems to grow vegetables, herbs, tilapia and perch in what was formerly an abandoned warehouse in the heart of Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood. While the farm supports its community by supplying local restaurants and farmers markets with its fresh, local produce, a partnership with its resident nonprofit organization, Sweet Water Foundation, is building a much larger legacy.

Sweet Water Foundation was originally created with one purpose: to accept donations of local grocery stores’ food waste, which would then be kept out of local landfills and turned into compost for Sweet Water Organics. But since its creation in 2009, the nonprofit has expanded its services and revised its mission; it now focuses on the development of educational programming for sustainability, specifically urban agriculture and aquaculture.

Sweet Water Foundation’s ultimate goal is to contribute to the solution of food security, employment, health, and environmental issues in its community and beyond. “We are really striving to create what we call ‘21st century neighborhoods,’” says Jesse Blom, city director of Sweet Water Foundation Milwaukee. “It’s essentially embracing the evolution of society and incorporating new technologies to create healthier communities.”

The foundation’s educational programs focus on sustainability and project-based, hands-on training. “Education is really at the heart of our mission,” Blom says. Activities include working with students to create miniature versions of the farm’s aquaponics set-ups, helping to maintain the farm’s vermicomposting, and more.

But not all of the organization’s programs happen on-site; Sweet Water also partners with local schools to set up demonstration projects, including aquaponics systems, raised bed gardens and composting, that are maintained by students. “We help them set up and integrate the practice and operation into their curriculum,” Blom says.

One the biggest challenges has been successfully creating educational programming that fits in with local schools’ varying curricula. “If we want to engage these community members, we are forced to provide a really broad spectrum and approach to what we’re doing,” Blom says. “We’re not getting all science teachers. We’ve had to be really open.”

To achieve this challenging level of flexibility, the organization partnered with the Milwaukee Education Center and several local teachers to create programs that focus on the STEAM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, agriculture and mathematics), incorporating for an interdisciplinary approach. “Whatever you’re teaching, in some way you can connect it to these,” Blom says.

It’s working. Fifty schools came to visit and tour Sweet Water Organics last year, and at present, there are about 15 schools (a mixture of public, private and charter schools) with aquaponics programs in Milwaukee. In addition, there are about five or six more schools in Chicago that offer aquaponics and urban farming programs. (The organization’s Chicago branch opened last year and is a partnership with Chicago State University.) Plus, the programming also works for college students, graduate students, adult learners and non-traditional students like veterans groups.

“We’ve had such a flood of interest and traffic,” Blom says. “We’re meeting a very clear need.”

There’s much more to come. One of the foundation’s newest projects is a global outreach program called Growing Networks, which provides networking opportunities between people of different nations who work on aquaponics programs. The foundation’s pilot project was created last year through a collaboration between Sweet Water, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, global consulting firm Mahattil International, and St. Albert’s College in Cochin, India. Word has spread, and the foundation has received inquiries from groups in several other countries, including Mexico, Serbia, and Ghana, with requests to recreate the program.

Finally, Sweet Water Foundation recently won a grant through the Digital Media & Learning Competition, a competition sponsored by Hastac, MacArthur Foundation, Mozilla, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The grant will allow the foundation to create a free digital version of its urban agriculture training programs, which are expected to be online and available by this time next year.

But even with this multi-faceted approach, for Blom it all comes down to creating excitement about aquaponics — and the problems it can help solve — in urban environments anywhere in the world. “The look on a kid’s face when they pick up a worm, and they don’t know whether to throw up or scream with excitement — that sort of thing for me is absolutely priceless,” Blom says. “We like to get video testimonials from students. The concepts that some of these students are talking to us about … like, ‘You know this is the first time that learning has been fun for me,’ or ‘I have a much larger attention span when I’m using a tool to build a compost bin.’ They’re real measures of progress we get through testimonials. People get really excited.”

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