Small-Scale Backyard Integrated Aquabioponics Food Production System and Training Program for Native Hawaiian Working Families in Hawaii

Year: 2007

Research Center: American Indian Studies Program, The University of Arizona

Investigator: D'Silva, Aecio, and Robert Howerton

Institution: University of Arizona

Project Contact:
Aecio D’Silva
University of Arizona
104 BioEast
Tucson, AZ 85721
Phone: 520-621-1959


Hawaii has one of the highest costs of living in the United States with a significant amount of household expenses spent on food purchases. Moreover, a substantial number of Native Hawaiian working families live close to or under the poverty level. A small-scale family food production system could reduce household expenses and increase nutritional input for poor working families.

In year one of this study, five Native Hawaiian families were recruited and trained in producing food, including fish and vegetables, in small-scale aquabioponics systems (SAAR). These low-cost integrated aquaculture-agriculture systems can be set up in backyards and supplement healthful foods that may be too expensive for low-income families to purchase in sufficient quantities. The food items produced by this system, fresh fish and vegetables, were the traditional dietary components of Native Hawaiians. After initial success in year one, the project was expanded to include five additional settings.

After being awarded funding for year two of the project, advertising for participants took place in local working class communities and newsletters and by word of mouth. Four families and a local educational institution, Kamehameha School, were chosen for participation in the Aquabioponics project. All participants verbally committed to the project for a minimum of 3 years and also agreed to help at least one additional family to set up a SAAR system. All participants were trained in a week-long “hands on” workshop and subsequently five additional SAAR systems were built and put into operation.

The study used quantitative and qualitative instrument tools to assess individual families’ production of fish and vegetables as well as competitive food prices in three commercial supermarkets in Maui.

The overall cost for materials and supplies to build a SAAR system is approximately $1,000, which does not include labor, fish feed, or utilities (water and electricity). It is evident from the amount of production from one growth cycle (1-1½ years) that these monies can be recouped from the sale of the commodities produced or the savings from not having to purchase these items. For example, 270 pounds of lettuce produced at Kamehameha School is valued at $900. An additional 190 pounds of tomatoes at $3/pound is worth $570. Conservatively, the system can produce approximately 70-80 pounds of fish per growth cycle. If sold wholesale at $5/pound, an additional $350-$400 could be realized. One growth cycle could generate between $1,500 and $2,000 in sales or savings on total food expenses, a considerable amount of money for poor, Hawaiian working families. As this study was the first exposure to aquabioponics for all the participants, the project design was very conservative in setting initial fish-stocking densities, which allowed all participants to obtain some success with the first trial and encouraged continued participation. This research has determined that stocking densities can be increased by at least a fourth to a third (100-120 fish).

None of the participants noted a significant increase in utility expenses, which is an important consideration because Maui County has one of the highest electricity rates in the Nation. Water and electric expenses to operate SAAR were estimated, on average, at $3-$10 per month.

SAAR has proven to be a valid method for improving Native Hawaiians’ food consumption lifestyle—enhancing and improving their diets with the production of their own organic food while providing an additional source of income. The SAAR objective is not just to study and identify the challenges facing Native Hawaiians but to deliver a practical solution by helping them to grow high-quality organic food in their own backyards.

Projects of this nature are vital to help ease Native communities from the dependency of assistance programs that may serve to cause greater harm by keeping these communities entrenched in the idea that government is obligated to care for their needs rather than to help themselves. During the implementation of this project, one of the biggest challenges was the availability of concurrent food stamp programs. When low-income families were approached and SAAR explained, the initial response from a majority of the families was to question the need to grow food because commodities were provided at no cost through assistance programs. This idea was predominant among many low-income families interviewed.

This viewpoint was one of the big obstacles that needed to be overcome. The project endeavored to show the families that SAAR places a workable and accessible solution to change and improve their life conditions in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way. SAAR proposed a radically different way to make families healthier and wealthier and to improve their self-esteem and purpose through their own food production. The SAAR families eventually understood the potential benefits of the system and developed a different approach to life. As a result, these SAAR projects continue to produce healthy food and additional income for all participants.

The SAAR projects have provided the basis for the development of an organic, sustainable, healthy, self-grown food supply to these families. It has also provided an excellent opportunity to train students and working families in natural food production systems. The project fulfilled its main objective to allow families to produce their own food and to increase consumption of natural, organic-raised food in their diets as well as selling production not consumed as an additional sustainable income source.

Direct inquiries about this study to the Project Contact listed above.