St. Stephen’s launched Project AquaStar in 2014 as an extension of its mission to support families toward self-sufficiency. What began as a community garden to combat the growing food insecurity in the Greater Linden area is now a shining example of the agency’s ability to stay relevant to modern concerns and changes.
Today the project comprises just over an acre of land, which operates as a biointensive urban ecological farm and resource center. Fifty kinds of fruits, vegetables and aquaponic plants are grown on the land and in its greenhouse. A bevy of bees, chickens and even fish call the space home.
“This project is like a big science and social experiment,” says Max Slater, Project AquaStar’s farm director. “By using regenerative agricultural products, we’re helping foster a productive ecosystem. It’s helping turn an urban environment into a productive, sustainable area.”
Slater and his team recently launched a Project AquaStar Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Once a week, it delivers boxes of farm-grown organic produce and eggs to its 30 members across Columbus. For each CSA box sold, Project AquaStar is able to donate the same amount of food to other St. Stephen’s initiatives that support Linden residents.
Parts of Linden experience one of the highest rates of “very low food security,” according to a 2018 study conducted by Ohio State University, and Slater says the farm can help—by diminishing the community’s pressing need for food and simultaneously increasing its independence through education.
Project AquaStar has served more than 400 young people in the area with hands-on educational STEM activities, and community members of all ages visit the farm to learn how to use food for wellness and grow their own plants while implementing easy, eco-friendly growing techniques. Each summer the farm hires a handful of Linden kids to tend the farm as they earn valuable work experience and nurturing mentorship from St. Stephen’s leaders.
“Linden is short on resources,” Slater says, “high on community pride.”
The sustainability team at Land-Grant Brewing Co. has tapped into that energy: The Franklinton brewery has diverted spent grain (which can be destructive to drainage systems) to feed Project AquaStar’s hungry hens and around 600 gallons of spent yeast for a composting pilot program on the farm.
Project AquaStar added Land Grant’s nitrogen-rich yeast to its soil, nurturing plants for the CSA program, as well as herbs and berries that went back to the brewery for special infusions. The pilot program’s testing and outcomes enabled Land-Grant to expand the yeast diversion program to OSU’s Waterman Research Farm and its cancer care-focused Garden of Hope.
“Project AquaStar helped us jumpstart our sustainability program and was essential in helping us figure out our diversion program to a T,” says Vincent Valentino, Land-Grant’s sustainability manager. “Several of our staff members participate in the CSA program, so it comes back to our people, too. Circular economies are really hard to pull off anywhere, and Project AquaStar was able to help us pull that off here.”
Though still a budding young program, Project AquaStar has planted the seeds of food innovation and education in the community. Slater hopes to grow the CSA membership list each season, strengthen partnerships with area schools on STEM programs and continue expanding the farm’s capabilities to make a significant impact on Linden and the people who call it home.
“Linden is one of Columbus’ most diverse communities, and there are so many different things here depending on where you look,” Slater says. “I’m lucky to get to work in a community I’ve come to love and with people I’ve developed a deep respect and admiration for.”