Doug and Julie Sharp of New Albany have devoted countless hours to working with youth and young adults that fall on the autism spectrum. Besides being the parents of an autistic child, Julie is a teacher at a school that specializes in working with students that have autism and Doug served on the school board.
Although there are many programs for youth that fall on the autism spectrum while they are in school, the Sharps noticed a distinct problem: after graduating from high school it is hard for youth with autism to receive support from external programs.
Seeing the need, the Sharps worked diligently to create the Lettuce Work Foundation, a non-profit 501c3 organization that serves young adults with autism and trains them for the future. The idea for Lettuce Work began in 2007. After construction of a 15,000 square foot greenhouse, partnering with a local high school, and plentiful paperwork, the first batch of lettuce was harvested in 2014.
“We work with kids ages 18 through 22 who need additional training and support in order to make a successful transition from high school to the working world. Our goal for the kids we work with is that they learn how to function in a work place and how to have appropriate interactions with their peers and supervisors,” said Doug Sharp, co-founder of the Lettuce Work Foundation. “We train them in basic work place behavior and social skills. Although we aren’t necessarily hoping that they get trained in agriculture per say, a lot of the kids we work with really enjoy it. Some of them have moved into other outdoor activities after completing their training with us, such as landscaping.”
Much of the job and skill training available for young adults on the autism spectrum tends to be in areas such as hospitality or janitorial services. The Sharps wanted to take a different approach. Agriculture had an appeal to the Sharps, who liked the idea of being outdoors and actually growing a product.
The Sharps went to Ohio State Extension to gather their opinion on what type of produce would work the best, not only to accomplish their mission of helping young adults with autism but also a crop to sell that would be able to support the charity.
“After talking with some people in Extension, we decided that hydroponic lettuce was going to work best. First off, it’s clean. A lot of kids on the spectrum have sensory issues, so not working with soil was a draw for us,” Sharp said. “Second, there is a steady demand for lettuce. It’s important that we had a plant that was needed, since the money we make from the product goes directly back into the Foundation.”
Instead of getting all the nutrients from soil, plants that are grown hydroponically receive their nutrients from a water solution. The plants are suspended in water and have a flow of nutrients beneath them.
“Another reason we decided for hydroponic lettuce is because we needed something that could be grown in the fall and winter, kind of opposite of the typical growing season,” Sharp said. “The kids we work with aren’t in school during the summer when most produce is grown. It worked out perfectly that we could use our greenhouses to grow lettuce year round.”
Lettuce Work partners with some area high schools to get young adults working in the greenhouse every day.
“We first started having the youth involved in the early building stages of Lettuce Work, so they were able to help us with some construction and things. After we start growing lettuce, we usually rotate groups of six to 10 kids in the greenhouse every week,” Sharp said. “In total, we probably work with 30 to 40 youth on the spectrum every year.”
In addition to the youth that visit every week, Lettuce Work employs around a half dozen staff members, some with autism.
“The staff serve as role models for the kids and help over look all the operations. We do all the harvesting, packaging and delivering with the kids,” Sharp said. “We typically have a set routine for the kids to follow, which is pretty comforting to them. Instead of focusing on the task, they can focus on their behavior and interactions with others. They also really enjoy the white noise coming from the lights, it has a relaxing effect.”
Since the non-profit organization garners donations through retail sales of their lettuce, it’s been important to increase lettuce yields and make improvements.
“Thanks to some grants and funding we received from the state of Ohio, the Columbus Foundation, Autism Speaks, The Ingram Whitecastle Foundation and Ante4autism we were able to install LED
lighting in our greenhouses this past fall,” Sharp said.
The new lights change color to match the light spectrum the crops need.
“It’s kind of funny, the lettuce grows under bright pink lights,” Sharp said. “We turn it on pink when no one is in the greenhouse and then when the kids come we flip it back to normal white light.”
The lights have increased their yields tremendously.
“Last year in the winter we’d harvest about 80 pounds of lettuce a week. This year we are harvesting 300 pounds of lettuce a week,” he said.
The next big improvement for Lettuce Work is coming this coming spring.
“We are going to start growing flowers in our greenhouse this coming spring. We plan on growing flats for landscaping and then hanging baskets and planters,” Sharp said. “Hopefully, with our greenhouses, we are able to be a step ahead of home improvement stores and people will buy our flowers first.”
Lettuce Work also hopes to have a retail store open on location at the greenhouses.
“By having the retail store, we will be able to train the kids in other skill areas. They’ll get practice in customer service, in working a cash register, maintaining the store front and more,” Sharp said. “Hopefully expanding into the flower business will also grow attention to our lettuce and promote our mission even more.”
Shoppers can find Lettuce Work Spring Salad Blend, a combination of eight to 10 varieties of lettuce, in the produce section of 25 different stores in the northern Franklin County area, including 17 Kroger stores, six Giant Eagles and other stores such as Lucky’s Market in Columbus, The Hill’s Market in Worthington, and Ross’ Market IGA in Granville.
“We are really proud to be selling a local and high quality product to our community,” Sharp said. “But we are even more proud to be making a difference in the lives of so many young adults with autism every year.”