Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Lesson Plans

Hawaii's fix for food deserts | STEM Student Reporting Labs

December 10, 2018

Full Lesson


Hawaii, for all its tropical splendor, is a relative food desert when it comes to native-grown produce. The islands import about 90 percent of its fresh produce. Larry Yonashiro is hoping to change that by starting an aquaponics movement, where locals can learn to grow high-quality produce in small outdoor spaces, using the wonders of aquaponics.


Introduction: Use the PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs video “Aquaponics Hawaiian Style” to understand the importance of organic farming in small urban spaces and how to build and sustain new systems.

Note: We recognize teachers have a limited time for current events, so you may choose to do just one of the activities below. Feel free to provide students with the agriculture resources you may not have gotten to at the end of the lesson, since you may have planted some seeds.

Estimated time: 30-minutes

Grades: 7-12

Subjects: Social Studies, Geography, Science (Biology, Environmental Science, Ecology, Chemistry, Earth Science), Engineering

Essential questions:

  • How is land used for agriculture in the United States?
  • How can urban aquaponics reduce environmental impacts of agriculture and add social benefits to communities?

Class activity

This activity will ask students to consider the spatial distribution of modern food systems and understand how aquaponics can reduce land use impacts. This will allow them to evaluate aquaponics as a solution for reducing the impacts of human activities on the environment and biodiversity (Next Generation Science Standard HS-LS2-7).

Warm up (5 minutes):

  • Think about where your breakfast comes from, geographically. If you’re not sure, who could you ask? Since many teachers and students eat breakfast at school, ask the cafeteria supervisor or your principal from where the school orders its food. List the foods you ate and where you the ingredients were grown. Share with a partner.
  • Let your students know that food production and food distribution are major industries throughout the world and, as a result, come with a whole host of terms. One term which will be the focus of the lesson is aquaponics; another is food deserts. Food deserts are where a high percentage of low-income people live and access to stores with affordable fresh food is a mile or more away from places of residence. You can read more about food deserts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Next, look at the USDA map of food deserts in the United States below, and if time, this article about the tool. Read through the question marks in the legend and decide which metric to look at. This is also an opportunity to discuss map legend choices. The color scheme and order of the layers don’t quite make sense, but this tool is comprehensive across the U.S., so it’s still useful. Toggle to the maps of Hawaii and Alaska. Tell students that the data is plotted by census tracts, so some are large and others are smaller.

  • Watch the video below produced by NewsHour Student Reporting Labs’ Philip’s Academy Charter School. This video shows one community’s solution for providing fresh food to families in need. To spare children and teens the embarrassment that sometimes comes with food insecurity and hunger, Toni’s Kitchen in Montclair, N.J., packs backpacks with meals that kids can pick up from their schools to deliver to their families in need.

    • Ask the class: What does the expression ‘to put food on the table’ mean? In America, the richest country in the world, why do people struggle with food insecurity? Could you empathize with those who may feel embarrassed and appreciate the subtlety that Toni’s Kitchen provides? Explain.

Produced by Marcelle Brooks, Kailani Day, Jalsa Drinkard, Savannah Love, Elijah Mosley, Oluwatofunmi Olatubosun, Kelsey Roberson and Lunabella Roman, students at Philips Academy in Newark, New Jersey. Instruction provided by SRL Connected Educators Sharon Alonzo and Sara Mosle, with assistance from William Blackman, a volunteer from Montclair High School in Montclair, New Jersey. Mentor support provided by NJTV.

Activity 1:  Watch Aquaponics Hawaiian Style video (5 minutes). You may wish to turn on the “CC” icon for closed-captions to help students follow along.

  • Remember that Hawaii is a set of volcanic islands about 2,500 miles off the mainland United States. According to the video, 90 percent of Hawaii’s produce (fresh fruits and vegetables) is imported, which requires fossil fuels for shipping food across the ocean.

After the video, ask students: Where were the people in the story farming?

(Answer: Hawaii, in the city – in Yonashiro’s backyard).

How do aquaponic plants get nutrients if they don’t use soil to grow?

(Answer: fish waste and bacteria produce nitrogen, a chemical that plants use to grow).

Note: The following text can be developed into a worksheet or a lecture with projections in a PowerPoint.

Activity 2: Interpreting land use maps + agriculture introduction (5 minutes):

Step 1: Agriculture takes up a massive amount of land in the United States. [Project map on a screen] Take a look at this map via Bloomberg and locate “Food we eat” and “Urban housing.” Why are these spaces so small? What takes up much of the other land?

(Answer: livestock pasture and land for growing animal feed).

The kind of food we eat impacts the land use patterns of our country. As the map shows, we eat a lot of meat in the U.S., and export a lot of it, too. Hawaii’s profile in the US Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture 2012 shows the state’s breakdown of farming activities.

Large-scale farming uses commercial fertilizer with added nitrogen and phosphorus. These methods often cause agricultural runoff, a problem that leads to algae blooms and toxic waters. Urban farming is one way to maximize dense land use and reduce impacts on the environment.

Step 2: Read the article (10 minutes), “How Urban Farming Could Change Hawaii” in City Lab by Janet Burns.

Activity 3: Discussion or writing assignment (5 minutes): Consider both the video and the articles. Discuss the following questions.

  1. What are the inputs and outputs of industrialized, soil-based agriculture and aquaponics?

(Answer: soil-based inputs are: seeds, water, fertilizer, pesticides, sunshine, fossil fuels for harvesting. Aquaponic inputs are: seeds, water, fish, sunshine, electricity to power the pumps. Outputs for both are agricultural products. Aquaponics can also produce fish for consumption).

  1. What are some social benefits of urban farming?

(Answer: community education and collaboration, neighborhood revitalization, diversifying economies, less food miles — or fossil fuels used to deliver food to consumers).

  1. Are there any drawbacks to urban farming?

(Answer: space constraints, less output than industrial farming, some inefficiencies; aquaponics has a high startup cost).

Extension activities

1. Lab-based lesson (Grades 9-12): For a weeks-long, extended observation on nutrient cycling between fish and plants, check out “Classroom Aquaponics: Exploring Nitrogen Cycling in a Closed System” Teacher’s Guide by Sean Mullen of Cornell University.

2. The following are a list of resources to learn more about aquaponics and food sustainability:


Jen Fuller is a PhD candidate in Environmental Social Science at Arizona State University studying renewable energy. She is currently a reserve teacher with Minneapolis Public Schools and a contributing writer to PBS affiliate Jen has worked for a variety of environmental nonprofit organizations and has developed sustainability lessons across all subject areas and grade levels.