HELL'S KITCHEN — A manmade river flows under Food and Finance High School, where more than 10,000 tilapia swim against the current just like they would in the wild.
The school's basement is home to Cornell University scientist Philson Warner's aquaculture lab, where he and public high school students raise enough fish to feed an army.
The tilapia — housed in 10 circular tubs containing about 1,000 fish each — swim in wide circles day and night in water that flows at between 75 to 150 gallons per minute. Each fish travels about 24 miles per day, without actually going anywhere.
"The fish live happily and grow to a 2-pound tilapia in six months," said Warner, clad in his regular uniform of a white lab coat and bow tie. He teaches aquaponics, hydroponics and aquaculture at the 525 W. 50th St. school while also conducting his own research.
In conjunction with the National 4-H Council, Warner works with students to develop technology to feed hundreds of thousands of people using little space. Not an inch is wasted — along with the tilapia swimming above, the basement tanks contain about 300 lobsters and 1,500 shrimp.
Fish isn't the only "crop" grown inside the school — on the third floor is Warner's hydroponics and aquaponics lab, where he and students grow lettuce, herbs, Chinese cabbages and even pineapples, using water instead of soil. Students help him in both labs, feeding the fish and monitoring bacteria levels in the tanks to earn high school science credits.
"The students, they do all my work," Warner said. "[If] they give me the wrong information, that may mean dead fishes or dead plants."
The food is used in the school's cafeteria and culinary program kitchens, sold to local restaurants and donated to hunger-relief organizations. Food and Finance plans to set up a storefront soon to sell the seafood, lettuce and spices. In all, the school already sells about $120,000 in fish per year.
"We are in a culinary environment, so they go to our culinary arts program, our catering program — sometimes, they even go to the Food Network," Warner said, noting that "Iron Chef" has used tilapia from the school's fish farm in its food challenges.
By manipulating the genes of the fish, Warner's been able to make tilapia that look like red snapper, and create a kind of tilapia that can survive in salt water.
By stacking hydroponic growers vertically in a pyramid, he can grow 500 heads of lettuce every month inside the school. In a bigger environment, Warner said the technology can grow about 2.5 million heads of lettuce per acre, as opposed to the 20,000 heads per acre that could be grown traditionally, in soil.
Along with the storefront, the school is also hoping to build a rooftop greenhouse to expand its food production.
"The work we do in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] has a nice by-product, in that we have living examples," Warner said. "This is the cleanest, safest food for human consumption."