Hydroponics Grows Homeless Teens Futures

A new indoor farm in Anchorage, Alaska is almost ready to launch. There’s far bigger things behind the hydroponics system at Seeds of Change than growing tons of lettuce and herbs. The plans are far more ambitious than growing a bazillion tons of veggies, though when running at full capacity, the facility is equipped to produce 50-70 tons annually. But it’s been taking shape for many years.

This is a youth empowerment project for at-risk teens and young adults coming out of the foster care and mental health system in Alaska. Some will be newly released from the juvenile justice system, and others homeless teens rescued from the streets.
It’s the lifelong dream of Dr. Mike Sobocinski. After decades of working with kids in the system as a clinical child and adolescent psychologist, he has found the perfect way to help them turn their lives around. Hydroponics and indoor farming.

It’s common for these young people to have struggled through not having enough to eat for years. Sobocinski is excited about this new situation that surrounds them with food. And a mountain of it at that. But not just any old food. Good food, beyond fresh, and packed with nutrition. The total opposite of the dumpster diving stuff many find their only source of protection against going hungry. Not to mention being higher quality than the priciest imported produce sold in Alaskan supermarkets.

The Alaska Seeds of Change hydroponics farm has two missions in motion at once, each highly commendable in its own right. It is part of the Anchorage Community Mental Health Services (ACMHS) Transition Age Youth Continuum of Services. The project seeks to reduce Alaskans’ reliance on imported food at the same time it helps at-risk youth find the path to a better life as adults. It offers them more than just a job. The teenagers will be involved at all levels of the business and operation. And they will have training in life skills, while learning leadership skills.

All transition program graduates will be prepared for full time employment with area businesses. But those who take a keen interest in the growing will have skills in high-tech indoor farming, hydroponics, operations, marketing, and distribution… All of which are about to become in big demand in Alaska. The more consumers who have access to fresh, locally grown foods, the number of those wanting it increases. Par for the course in a place where all fruits and vegetables travel 2,000-3,000 miles after harvest. Alaskans are just waking up to the possibilities high-tech farming has to offer.

An ambitious plan from the moment they bought the empty warehouse in 2014, Seeds of Change is poised to hit the ground running with 2900 ZipGrow towers in their hydroponics system. The 11,000 square foot building needed $3 million in renovations to prepare it for growing. Not a huge facility, but plenty big enough to pump out a phenomenal amount of lettuces, greens, herbs, and strawberries in intense cropping. Sobocinski worked closely with Bright AgroTech in Wyoming through the planning and construction process.

The growing staff of 20 will range in age from 16-24. While most such programs would treat the kids like unpaid interns, paying them in food. However, Seeds of Change, however, gives them a real world situation. It’s a wage earning placement as much as a training program. They’ll earn $12-$13 an hour, putting in 10-15 hour work week under the supervision of someone their own age. ACMHS has hired 19-year old Quaven Bracken to oversee the growers. Sobocinski finds that a young adult with personal experience as an at-risk kid or teen has the best chance of getting through to them. Bracken, while never homeless, often found himself responsible for feeding his younger siblings due to his mother’s disabilities and frequent hospitalization.

The young people will spend 6-9 months in the program that has taken Dr. Sobocinski 15 years to bring to life. Quite an accomplishment! For some reason, he thinks his indoor farm inside a steel-sided warehouse is a greenhouse. Even if he doesn’t figure out that such a structure must have transparent walls that sunlight penetrates, he’s onto something really good with this youth transition project. Then again, Alaska has very few true greenhouses, because it is so bitterly cold there. So, perhaps in that climate, this is as close as you can get without a cost of heating beyond reason on even the biggest operating budget.

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Image courtesy of Alaska Dispatch News.

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Tammy Clayton

Contributing Writer at Garden Culture Magazine

Tammy has been immersed in the world of plants and growing since her first job as an assistant weeder at the tender age of 8. Heavily influenced by a former life as a landscape designer and nursery owner, she swears good looking plants follow her home.