Community members tend to a garden outside of the Latino Health Access headquarters in Santa Ana. Credit: Johan Moreno for Voice of OC

If you’re a resident of Santa Ana, you’ve very likely grown used to living without much open space.

The parks in Santa Ana neighborhoods, if there are any at all, are puny compared to the wide expanses of South County. And for many Santa Ana residents who endure extremely crowded living conditions, the idea of having a garden is as foreign as having a three-car garage.

Isaac Michaca has lived this reality for all of his life. And though only 17, he knows what’s at stake.

He knows that a neighborhood with gardens — whether they be backyard gardens or community gardens — is a neighborhood with a better chance of combating obesity and other diet-related ills that have increasingly become a scourge of underserved communities.

So when Michaca came across Nancy Caruso and her environmental nonprofit — called Get Motivated! — which specializes in space-saving aquaponic gardening, he begged her to help make a community garden project happen in center-city Santa Ana.

Aquaponics is an integrated, sustainable, soil-less system for growing both fish and plants. It allows for plants to grow vertically and year-round with 90 percent less water than typically necessary, which is revolutionary for densely populated urban communities that don’t have the space required for traditional gardening.

“I told him [Michaca] I’ll teach you to do aquaponics, if you can show your community how to do aquaponics,” Caruso said.

Both made good on their end of the bargain, and Saturday Caruso addressed a crowd of city residents who are embarking on an aquaponic garden project at the Latino Health Access headquarters on Fourth Street.

“The best way I like to explain aquaponics is that you can grow your own fish tacos. Growing your own food is like printing your own money. You save money at the grocery store,” Caruso told the crowd.

Latino Health Access, KidWorks, along with community members, have joined together to create a plan of action on how to fundraise, create and execute the project. The goal is to allow the growth and distribution of fresh fruits and vegetables throughout Santa Ana.

Michaca was not shy in sharing his enthusiasm for the project.

“I think it’s important to start a project like this one in Santa Ana because we don’t have a lot of access to health,” Michaca said. “There are no healthy fast food options. There’s not much space in Santa Ana, but in those small spaces, we can create healthy spaces.”

Aquaponics is nothing new — in fact its origins date back to the ancient Aztec civilization. And these days, Disney uses it to grow fruits and vegetables at its theme parks. Caruso, herself, has experience with developing aquaponic systems at the commercial level to help businesses grow produce utilizing the advantages of aquaponics.

However, aquaponics is not as easy as planting a few seeds in a patch of soil. A successful project requires specialized pumps, tanks and most importantly, maintenance. Caruso said an system set to serve a single home family could cost up to $500.

Caruso added, “The initial investment is more than soil, but over time it will be worth it.”

Caruso said the start-up costs for the Santa Ana aquaponic project will be around $700. The community members are already proposing everything from car washes to pupusa sales to come up with the money.

Claudia Naffa, 39, evoked the community’s excitement: “It opens the doors to Santa Ana to actually grow something and if we cooperate as a community, we can make it possible.”

Johan Moreno is a UC Irvine journalism student and contributor to Voice of OC. He can be reached at

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