The Greater Toronto Area is now home to the country's first aquaponic food bank farm. Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (growing plants in water and without soil) together in one integrated system. The Mississauga Food Bank unveiled its new setup Wednesday night. It will offer clients access to fish and vegetables.

Toronto Lettuce

AquaGrow Farms produces 40 heads of lettuce a week. (CBC)

It's a level of freshness the food bank says it's desperately lacking. 

"We're in an agricultural desert here in Mississauga," said executive director Chris Hatch, "we couldn't get enough fresh produce, so it's really what drove us to look at this instead of other types of farming." 

In the heart of the food bank, schools of black Nile and silver tilapia swim in tanks. Above them, the roots of leafy green lettuce dangle into the water.

Toronto Tilapia

Black Nile and silver tilapia swim in tanks at Mississauga Food Bank's aquaponic farm. (CBC)

The farm produces 40 heads of lettuce a week. Fish will be harvested every six months, which will produce about 57 kilograms of fish every year. Hatch said this is equal to approximately 10,000 servings of fish and lettuce.

The aquaponic farm project has been in the works for three years. Construction began in August, and growing began in late September.

The farm operates as a closed system. Fish are fed high-quality food and the waste goes into filtration tanks. The waste breaks down and releases nutrients for plant growth. Water goes to the plant beds where the roots are dangling in the water. Since there is no soil, the plants take the nutrients they need to grow and the cleaner water goes back into the fish tanks. The symbiotic system circulates 24 hours a day.

"They're the best of both worlds, the fish help the plants and the plants help the fish," said Hatch.

Toronto walter filtration

The farm operates as a closed system. Fish waste goes into filtration tanks, then breaks down into nutrients that feed the plants. (CBC)

Rebecca Nelson's Wisconsin-based hydroponics company helped build the system. She said her company has aquaponic farms in Haiti, Malaysia, Austria, and the Caribbean.

"It's important for us to see this technology used in environments where it's directly feeding people," Nelson said Wednesday.

No other food bank in Canada uses aquaponics. Hatch is hoping his project will also inspire other Canadian food banks.

"We envision this thing getting larger and larger and larger. Hopefully, other food banks will embrace the aquaponics bug as well."

With files from CBC's Nick Boisvert