In this series, we're sitting down with the Swette Center-affiliated faculty to catch up on food systems, innovation, and what makes a good meal. See the rest of the series on our Food Systems Profiles page.
Read on for an interview with Rozita Smith, Assistant Director to the International Students and Scholars Center and owner of The Aquaponics Grower.
1) How did you get interested in food systems issues?
I was born and raised in Malaysia, where my parents were farmers. I was growing up and watching them just do their own thing every year for our family. They never attended any schools for agriculture, but they seemed to know everything about the farms they tended to and had their schedules. They knew the weather patterns, they knew when to grow what, and every year they had containers full of rice and vegetables prepped. I remember considering my parents were poor in an economic sense. I know I think about it. We didn't admit it because we didn't need to save anything. I used to eat fresh food; I remember when I was little, we didn't have freezers. They just harvested what we needed to eat for the day, and I grew up eating all the warm, fresh food with nothing left over. It was kind of something like a good feeling. Looking back at those times, my parents were very sustainable and could be considered wealthy; They are considered wealthy in terms of food system knowledge and available food supplies. They have huge land and acreage to grow food. We never starved, and we even had extra to give to people.
After I moved away from my parents, I went to college, and then I moved to America ten-plus years ago, and I just noticed that the feeling was weird about food here. And I started to wonder what happened, and I started wondering what was going on. I didn't have the same feeling as the rest, and one time a friend of mine visited me and confirmed my feelings. And I think that was the case. I have started learning how food is being produced in America and how animals are being raised and prepared. All those vegetables that you think, ‘Yeah, fresh and healthy’. But they're not really because they've grown differently and distributed poorly. That was when I opened it for me. I started learning about it and watching, you know, reading, watching documentaries, and I was shocked.
That's one reason why I was interested and what happened to me, my food, and all the produce around. I miss those moments when I was back home. I have certain vegetables and products that I want to eat, and I don't have them because when I go to the grocery store, I can't find them. Then I said, “What can I do?” I mean, “Why, why can't I grow my own?” Then I started growing in my backyard, and I started looking for seeds that were familiar to me. I've been gardening for several years now. I can grow what I want that is not available in the market. I can get fresh vegetables from my own garden and use them for cooking. I don't need to keep it in the fridge, but I can also share it with my friends and family. I'm literally wondering, how can I improve the food that I'm eating? I want to know what exactly I put in there because I don't use chemicals in my garden, and then I can grow the food that I want that is not available out there. Then I can share some love with my friends who also miss those certain products.
2) Share a glimpse of your current research and how it applies to food systems transformation.
I have been working with my own system. I started with a soil-based garden, and then I got interested in hydroponics and aquaponics. I have been learning a lot, spending countless hours reading and watching people's videos and gardening tips. I’ve started my own small size, like 200 gallons of fish tub with a little bit smaller of the growing media space, and it's been going well. Now I have a much bigger system that later I can easily make it double and scale it into a large commercial size. I don't know how many times I’ve brought products to my office and to share with student workers and colleagues. I work in the international office, and many of them are student workers that are international students, and when I brought something like unique produce just recently, there was a student that exclaimed, “Oh, where did you get this like, I've been looking for this since I came to America. It's already been like three plus years. I haven't seen it!”
And that there was like another motivation now that I wanted to get bigger. I wanted to help more, and I feel that also applies to system transformation because now I get my colleagues to attend some workshops I host just for fun, I say, “Hey! Who is interested in growing your own vegetables at your own home?”, and several people have attended. I started with just gardening 101 basics. I then introduced soil, and then hydroponics, aeroponics, and then aquaponics. I have been teaching my colleagues how to grow little plants like basil with cups with just water using reused or recycled containers, like plastic cups you’d get from restaurants, and how you’d repurpose them. I also teach them how to save their produce from the grocery store for longer periods of time. For example, you buy bags of lemons, one bag of lemons with fifteen of them in it. How do you save them so you can use them longer and use all of them instead of throwing them away and then, like green onions or cilantro or anything else from $1, how can you make it longer? Making $10 stretch for yourself. You cut the stem, you regrow them, you make a few more harvests out of it, and that is all I learned from the hydroponic system.
3) What's an innovation in the food systems world that you're excited about?
I think the electricity grid and power are very important considerations to make when thinking about anything hydroponics. I think there will be a lot of back and forth since the equipment will utilize a lot of electricity. The Kratky method is something that I'm excited to share. It is a type of hydroponics, but it doesn't use pumps necessarily, rather, you just put vegetables suspended above the water, and they just grow like that until you harvest them. B.A. Kratky did this research, and a lot of people are now using this technique. If we can further enhance this method, this is pumpless and does not require electricity. Maybe nutrient-wise is one that we need to work on to make it more natural because hydroponics usually depends on the water-based nutrient solution. A lot of them are chemical-based at this point. In the Kratky method, if we can figure out the appropriate organic solutions, we can minimize electricity use. My goal and aspirations are to empower people. Families, just like mine, grow food in their own space, regardless of how much space they have.
4) What's your favorite weeknight meal?
I love fresh, fresh vegetables. I can literally eat them every day, and that's why I really enjoy now that I can produce my own food. I literally step outside and grab my own vegetables. And what I usually eat is like a quick meal for me, I mean, I always have white steamed rice, and then any type of vegetables or sautéed, with some steak or whatever protein I have that is easily available, it could be spam or fish. Something very simple, easy-peasy. I think in noodle soup, and especially in my noodles, will have all sorts of greens. So that's a very simple menu for me, but I think that is also what I had growing up, and it helps me make me feel like I’m home.