It doesn’t take long to realize Bill Coe is passionate about what he does in the greenhouse at East High School. Coe is director and CEO of Green Acres Urban Farm and Research Project, which is surrounded by some of Kansas City’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods.
Around here, fast food is more common than salad bars. But Coe is doing his part to educate and expose kids to agriculture, while growing fresh produce and protein organically. Then, he’s giving the food away to families who need it.
“You’re really teaching outside of the textbooks and really taking the science, and the applications of science, and putting them into motion,” Coe said on a recent tour of the building. “That’s why I love our project.”
He’s doing all this while food insecurity across the country and in Kansas City has gotten worse because of the coronavirus pandemic, particularly for Black, Latino and immigrant households, many of which send their kids to East High.
When the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities looked at recent census data, they found more than 20% of Black and Latino adults reported not having enough to eat, compared to 9% of white Americans.
“A lot of people don’t have an idea that this is going on here, actually,” said Elsa Mecado, about Green Acres.
Macedo is a 4-H/Snack program coordinator at the University of Missouri Extension in Platte County, and a East High School graduate.
“I knew this school, I knew that they had a farming program, so I was like, ‘I should try to go there, even though it’s not in my county,’” she said. “The students … talk to you more and they get a little more excited when they see someone that looks like them.”
Plus, Macedo said, it gives her a chance to learn more about aquaculture — the farming technique that makes Coe’s nonprofit stand out.
Going inside the greenhouse
Coe’s greenhouse is split into two sides: The dirt side and the aquaponics side.
On the dirt side, vegetables, herbs and native plants grow in black plastic pots and trays, spread out across gray tables — like a typical greenhouse or garden center. There’s also a big tub of dark compost filled with tiny worms.
“When we’re finished with the plant, we will try to recycle the soil,” Coe said. “The worm can eat and process all the biodegradable material in the soil and excrete … really, really, really good, earthy, organic type of soil.”
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— Tilapia jump, so Coe keeps a net over their tanks. Here, he prepares to do a health check on one of the fish.
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— In the grow beds, leafy greens float on the surface of the water. The roots absorb natural fertilizers from the fishes’ old water.
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— Coe uses a biodegradable foam-like medium to keep his plants’ root systems intact. The plant is then placed in a floating net pot so the leaves can absorb light, and the roots can access the water below.
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— In one aquaponics system, Coe uses prawn to help further filter water after it has left a plant grow bed, and before it returns to a tilapia tank.
But the main attraction is the aquaponics side.
“Aquaponics is the science of using … fish waste, or the fish poop, to provide fertilizer to the plants. So we have a balance going on,” said Coe.
In this room, seven big tubs — five bright blue ones filled with tilapia or goldfish, and two with prawn — sit on wooden stools. They’re about chest-high and have nets draped over them. Perched over everything is a network of plastic pipes and hoses.
First, the solids are filtered out of the old fish water. The water is then pumped into two big grow beds — about 20 feet long and 6 feet wide.
Floating on top of the water, which is about a foot deep, are dozens of sheets of what looks like biodegradable Styrofoam with a grid of holes through them, like precise Swiss cheese. The greens are planted into the holes with their roots dangling in the water, soaking up the fish’s natural fertilizer.
After another go through the filters, the water returns to the tilapia.
Carol Coe’s legacy
Bill Coe says it’s one of the largest systems in Kansas City, and it wouldn’t be here without the work of his late mother, Carol Coe.
She was a civil rights activist, attorney, east side advocate and former Jackson County and Kansas City lawmaker who died last month. She was 74.
At a 2009 conference in Colorado, she was struck by an aquaponics system on display.
“Mom really just kind of — it just kind of met her and she met it, so to speak,” Coe said. “She was just, like, forward-thinking and saying … we need to find an area in the city where we can put this system.”
What she envisioned then was a chance to educate and expose kids to agriculture, grow healthy food in a food desert, and do it all sustainably.
When she returned home to Kansas City, she set her sights on East High’s greenhouse, which had been abandoned, and the seed grew from there.
But to make a real dent in the area’s food insecurity, Green Acres would have to scale up — a lot. Analysis from Johns Hopkins University suggests typical urban farms don’t erase big food deserts like this.
Coe has plans to expand, with a research bio-park that could grow 1.2 millions pounds of leafy greens and 60,000 pounds of fish a year.
It’s the kind of operation that could help this community through a food crisis like none other, while providing a few new green jobs. Coe needs $5 million to break ground, which he hopes to do this year.
For now, students like 4-H club member Selina Chun get, at the very least, an introduction to agriculture — even if she doesn’t plan to make it a career.
“This was so fun,” Chun said, who is a senior. “I would do this in my free time all day, every day, if I could.”
When the vegetables were grown, the farm donated them to East High School families in need. Chun says that was her favorite part.
“Just packaging up the food and then slapping a little Green Acre sticker on it, and just making sure, like, we packed it with love,” she said.