"They're not for meat this year—they're for eggs, so we won't be killing them," said Community School eighth-grader Sara Runkel, referring to the chickens the class is raising for this year's study about food.
Sara is the daughter of Scott Runkel, an eighth-grade teacher and the mastermind behind the class annual study about food that he and the students refer to as the "food unit." Runkel does initial studies and tests during the summer months and then presents an idea to the students and they design their own projects.
Last year, it was chickens that the students raised and killed and served at a "good foods banquet" in a project that raised the hackles of the Virginia-based United Poultry Concerns, a national poultry protection organization. This year, the students are raising tilapia, a fish of the cichlid family originally from Africa that is now grown commercially in the United States.
But the tilapia are only part of a larger food-unit endeavor. The main project is aquaponics, in which fish and plants are raised together in a symbiotic relationship—plants grow in a gravel bed on fish waste and the plants and gravel keep the fish water clean and healthy.
Not all the students are involved in aquaponics. Five others are raising chickens, while other students are studying food preservation.
Sara Runkel and her group have five brown hens that they obtained earlier this month for $6 apiece. In addition to being an agricultural project, from which the students learn about feeding and treatment of animals, the students will be learning economics as they try to sell eggs to pay for the chickens and the cost of their food.
"It's an experience to learn how there is a better way to get food than just buying it at the store," Sara Runkel said.
Roger Figge and Miles Remington are conducting studies on the effects of pesticides on the shelf life of fruits.
"Something we thought was weird was that the organic tomatoes lasted longer than the conventional ones." Figge said.
However, he and Remington acknowledged that the results are preliminary and further research is needed.
Students Carter Miller, Noah Wilson and Elliot Lewis have small-scale aquaponics projects underway, using goldfish, vegetables, plastic piping and large water bottles or plastic barrels that they designed and crafted themselves into fish tanks.
"It's really a good project," Wilson said. "You get to grow your own plants who live off the fish—they live off each other. I feel like it's a really good way to grow food because you don't have to do much once you get it going."
"This project was really fun," Lewis said. "It combines science and mechanics. It's self-sustaining. There are problems at first, but you figure them out."
A larger aquaponics project, the one involving the tilapia, is being carried out by students Claire Siderman, Moyo Tian, Jack Swanson and Patrick Riedinger, who hope to grow 20 now-small tilapia into fish weighing up to 2 pounds each by the end of the school year.
The students have learned plumbing and carpentry skills by building their own grow beds from plastic barrels and putting together the piping for a complex linkup to a 250-gallon fish tank.
While raising the fish, the students will also be growing vegetables and carefully monitoring water quality, nitrate levels and fish and plant growth rates.
"It's like hands-on and you can learn a lot from the hands-on experience," Siderman said.
"You learn more with your hands on than you do from a computer or a book," said Tian.
Scott Runkel said the food unit will last the entire school year since it takes longer to raise tilapia than it does to raise chickens. Whether the students hold another good foods banquet, though, is up to them.
So what do they intend to do with all the fish and vegetables they raise?
"We're probably going to eat them," Tian said.
Terry Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org
Last year's chickens were illegal
Whoops—Community School eighth-graders raised chickens illegally last year. It seems they didn't have a permit, as required for the keeping of poultry in Sun Valley.
The chickens are long gone, consumed nearly a year ago at a "good foods banquet," so the city was willing to let bygones be bygones. However, the issue raised its head again this year when the eighth-graders came up with a plan to keep a few chickens for egg production.
Initially the city said no, but a group of students showed their plan to Police Chief Cameron Daggett and he relented.
"I just had a conversation with them," Daggett said. "I made sure that they had a reasonable place to keep them, that they had a plan for their feeding and care seven days a week and then went down to the place and decided it was an applicable place and they could do it."
The permit allows the eighth graders to keep up to six egg-laying chickens until the end of the school year.
The keeping of chickens, along with an assortment of other types of animals, both domestic and wild, is covered under Sun Valley's Exotic Wildlife ordinance, which places the power of enforcement in the hands of the police department.
The ordinance covers "basically anything that's not a normal dog or cat," Daggett said. "I've issued permits for snakes, for goats—I had one guy that wanted to keep a cougar, but I didn't go for that."
Actually, the ordinance authorizes without a permit the "keeping of those animals which are generally known and recognized in the community as household pets."