Alaska Seeds of Change: How an Indoor Farm in Midtown Anchorage Could Help At-Risk Youth

To help disadvantaged teens and young adults land jobs, an Anchorage mental health provider is staking out ground in the high-tech farming fields of hydroponics and vertical gardening.

Inside a warehouse off Arctic Boulevard last month, violet light bathed rows of tall white columns. Leafy greens poked out in vertical rows, marked with handwritten labels for romaine lettuce and parsley.

Michael Sobocinski, the chief operating officer of Anchorage Community Mental Health Services, gestured to the columns.

“Each of these towers, you can see up here, has nutrient solution,” Sobocinski said, surrounded by the drip-drip-drip sound of small hoses. He showed how water nourishes the roots, collects in a gutter and then recirculates back to a nutrient tank that feeds back into the hydroponic system.

The columns are yielding pounds of fresh veggies. The twist: The gardeners will be largely young adults coming out of foster care, mental health treatment, the juvenile justice system or even homelessness. Sobocinski and his team hope the inside garden will be a turning point for youth at risk of falling through the cracks.

Seeds of Change, as the program is called, has been incubating for years, but it’s now on the cusp of becoming reality. Anchorage Community Mental Health Services, a well-established nonprofit that offers a wide range of services to adults and children, is managing the project.

The idea came from Sobocinski, who previously worked at residential children’s psychiatric treatment centers in Denver. In that job, Sobocinski saw a lot of kids who grew up hungry. Some of his clients were fishing food out of dumpsters to help feed their siblings.

A horticultural therapist also showed him that young people tend to respond well to working with plants, he said.

In 2014, after years of research and planning, Anchorage Community Mental Health Services bought the building at 26th Avenue and Arctic Boulevard. At least from the outside, it’s nondescript — a kitchen cabinet manufacturing company used to be housed there.

Renovating the 11,000-square-foot building to suit an indoor farming operation cost about $3 million. The construction money came from a grant through the state Department of Health and Social Services. More than $100,000 came from the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority for planning, development and startup staffing costs.

Once fully up and running, Seeds of Change should yield 50 to 70 tons of produce a year, Sobocinski said.

To staff it, Anchorage Community Mental Health Services plans to hire up to 20 people between the ages of 16 and 24. The wages will likely range between $12 and $13 an hour for 10 to 15 hours of work a week, Sobocinski said.

Priority will go to teens and young adults aging out of Alaska’s foster care, juvenile justice or mental health treatment systems. Too many kids are coming out of tough circumstances and getting lost in young adulthood, Sobocinski said.

“When you turn 18, by and large, the system of care says, ‘Congratulations, you’re an adult,’ ” Sobocinski said. “And so programs and eligibility that work when you were 17 may not necessarily work when you’re 18.”

All the workers will have access to mental health services through Anchorage Community Mental Health, though they don’t have to be clients, Sobocinski said.

As well as working in the greenhouse, the hired youths are expected to attend classes on life skills, like getting an apartment, interviewing for jobs and maintaining good credit.

The positions will last between six and nine months. Finding the workers full-time jobs from there is key, Sobocinski said.

Population of focus: At-risk youth in Alaska

Links to resources:

Date: 2016

Organization: Anchorage Community Mental Health Services