Jacksonville-based FreshMinistries, Inc. has teamed up with South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu to make the nonprofit’s aquaponics agricultural initiative global in an effort to fight world hunger.
FreshMinistries, founded in 1989, aims to end extreme poverty by empowering people living in impoverished and high-crime neighborhoods. Under the direction of Rev. Dr. Robert V. Lee III, FreshMinistries plans to launch two aquaponics training centers in the coming months in South Africa and the U.S. Virgin Islands as part of the “Desmond Tutu Program to End Global Hunger, a FreshMinistries Initiative.”
“Your program is quite exciting and has such a great potential for helping to eradicate poverty,” Tutu recently wrote to Dr. Lee. “You and your colleagues already have an enviable record of making a difference. I commend you and your colleagues on a superb record. Well done.”
Dr. Lee went to South Africa to meet with Tutu to discuss the new project back in September. The trip was arranged by Kamele “Oupa” Seane, the associate director of outreach for the Commission on Diversity and Inclusion at the University of North Florida. Seane, a member of the FreshMinistries board of trustees and a friend and associate of Tutu, helped arrange the donation of some of Tutu’s manuscripts to UNF earlier this year.
“We are thankful to Oupa for opening the door to this opportunity,” said Dr. Lee. “It was an honor to talk with Archbishop Tutu about our work and our dream to create aquaponics centers worldwide to teach people to grow healthy food and build healthy communities. He is one of the most inspiring spiritual leaders of our time, and the fact that he has blessed us by agreeing to attach his name to our efforts is truly humbling. We are beyond grateful.”
FreshMinistries operates a 6,000 square-foot model aquaponics farm and training center at the Weaver Center for Community Outreach in Jacksonville.
“We’re a year-and-a-half old, so we’re relatively new,” said Bobby Lee, who runs FreshMinistries’ greenhouse operations on Jacksonville’s Eastside. “We finished construction May of 2017. The first year for us was really trying to get a handle on what we could grow, how we could grow it, where was most efficient to grow it. Now it’s about trying to get it to the end user.”
Aquaponics is a closed loop agricultural system that mimics the ecology of nature to produce fish and plants. Within the system, fish produce nutrient-rich waste that fertilizes the plants and the plants in turn filter the water for the fish.
According to FreshMinistries, aquaponics requires only 3 to 5 percent of the water needed for soil-based farming. It’s completely organic and up to ten times more productive than traditional farming. The process requires no soil and it can produce crops year-round, anywhere.
“It’s not a new technology. The Aztecs fed their entire civilization on floating islands. This is sort of a new application of some of the older technologies,” Lee explained. “We really feel that the application of this technology is going to become more relevant than ever in the coming years.”
At its Jacksonville facility, FreshMinistries trains at-risk youth how to grow, harvest and prepare fresh fish and produce, giving them work experience distributing fresh food. The facility also serves as a provider of fresh produce in an inner-city food desert while raising funds to support FreshMinistries initiatives. The aquaponics farm produces organic produce like lettuce, greens, peppers, tomatoes and culinary herbs, among other crops.
The U.S. Economic Development Administration recently awarded FreshMinistries a $2 million grant to build a 27,000 square-foot aquaponics training center in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“These initial systems are models for a global roll-out in regions where food security is at issue”, said Dr. Lee. “We have partnered with the Anglican Communion to use their property to build the systems that will help those in need to develop their own agribusinesses”.
FreshMinistries is set to build a similar training facility in South Africa in 2019 in partnership with Conservation South Africa and the Anglican Church. “We are very excited about the work ahead,” said Sabello Maschwama, Executive Director for FreshMinistries’ African Initiatives.
Maschwama will supervise and manage the aquaponics project in South Africa. He previously managed FreshMinistries’ Siyafundisa Project, an HIV-AIDS education program that, according to the Harvard School of Public Health, impacted or saved the lives of 900,000 youth in Africa.
Dr. Lee said that he was “proud that the Desmond Tutu Program to End Global Hunger has been borne out of an initiative in our hometown of Jacksonville, Florida.”
FreshMinistries hosts an open house at their Jacksonville aquaponics farm, located at 616 A. Philip Randolph Blvd., every Friday from 10 a.m. to noon.