Chief Executive Officer, Worldwide Aquaponics
Conversation with Hope McMath
Photograph by laird
You wear many hats—entrepreneur, community leader, educator, mentor, scientist—but you most fully identify as a farmer and an innovator, which is evident in your role as CEO of Worldwide Aquaponics. What sits at the heart of this work?
Farming ties everything together that is important to me—land, water, conservation, care, and authentic connections to people. Farming is also in my genes.
As a scientific farmer, I am focused on finding new ways to grow food and communities. That means responding to the changing climate, caring for the land by avoiding chemicals, using less water, and developing practices that can be spread to farmers in communities from the Czech Republic and the Caribbean to Washington State and Mississippi. Aquaponics specifically allows us to grow both vegetables and fish in a sustainable way. We are able to capture all of the phosphorous that is generated for production of a wide variety crops without harming our waterways. Though we specialize in salad greens, we also grow beets, celery, herbs, tomatoes, squash, and more. While innovative, it is also relatively easy, which means we can replicate this model in places that deal with 120-degree weather or winters marked by snowpack.
This connection between farming and community drove your response to the COVID-19 crisis as you pivoted part of your work on the farm in Palatka to getting fresh food into the hands of those experiencing food insecurity. Can you describe the Florida Blue, Farmers and You program?
When we saw people waiting in long lines at food banks during the early weeks of COVID, we pitched the idea of a program that would help our local farmers and those who were experiencing hunger, sometimes for the first time. With funding from Florida Blue, other funders, and dozens of volunteers, we were able to keep local farmers farming and put fresh food directly into the hands of people who needed it most, no questions asked. It was powerful. The effort expanded our partnership network as we rallied to feed seniors and families. It started with 400 families who are part of the local AME church and eventually included distribution to other people—serving organizations from Ocala to Amelia Island. During 2020-2021 we moved two million pounds of produce, serving up to 1,200 families a week. We saw a need, filled the need, kept people working, and people in homes fed.
You often speak about this concept of changing the hunger landscape. Tell us about your approach to this challenge?
We need to recognize that it is not just about food. Yes, there are immediate needs that must be addressed and many are doing so. As people we are starving for authentic human connections that bring progress to all of us. If we want to really change hunger, we need to also invest in farmers—local farmers. As a mayor, it is part of my platform to have locals doing for locals and this includes those who grow and distribute food. Investing in sustainable systems provides economic stability, while we are making sure no family goes to bed hungry. With climate change and every other challenge in the world around us, changing the hunger landscape goes deeper than just making sure we each have nutrition in our bodies but that we are also building strong relationships.