I’m not sure if my parents were up on child labor laws in the 80s, but in addition to our myriad of daily chores my sister and I were subjected to dish duty following dinner each and every night. Much to my dismay, I was stuck washing because Angela, my older sister, preferred to dry. Inevitably my dad would yell over “A good drier complements a bad washer” to which we would roll our eyes and wish the stack of food-caked dishes would disappear as quickly as they arrived. As much as I detested the chores and, as I got older, the unavoidable summer employment, I can thank my parents for teaching me the importance of a job well done and for helping me develop a strong work ethic that has carried me into adulthood. For me, completing tasks and following instruction was second nature, but unfortunately for the many young adults living with autism this is not their reality. Children and adults living with this neurodevelopmental disorder need rigid structure, consistency, visual cues, and minimal distraction; things that are absent in most work environments. Luckily for those living in Central Ohio, such a workplace exists that not only employs and fosters young adults with autism, but is growing delicious food in the process.
Lettuce Work is a non-profit organization which pursues the goal of being a place of transition. In 2007, founders Doug and Julie Sharp began the process of turning their dream into a reality, and were inspired by their 13 year old son who is on the autism spectrum or the spectrum as they refer to it. For the past seven years they have been busy sifting through the endless stacks of paperwork, purchasing land in New Albany, and building a working commercial hydroponic greenhouse full of bays growing you guessed it, lettuce. Although they personally funded a majority of the project, Doug and Julie knew the importance of making community connections. They developed a partnership with Oakstone Academy, a private school in Westerville which educates children on the spectrum. Autistic young adults along with teachers from Oakstone quickly became involved in the program offered at Lettuce Work but, as Doug explained, 50% of their employees are not on the spectrum. The reason behind this blending is purposeful; they want their employees with autism to observe normal social and communication behaviors in the workplace. These young adults not on the spectrum gain volunteer hour credits required in order to graduate high school, so everyone benefits.
For around 30 hours each week the intelligent and capable young adults ages 18 and older enter into the Lettuce Work building and change into their work attire. They leave their work clothes and shoes on-site to minimize potential exposure to any bacteria, and the risk of E. coli transmission is greatly reduced. Additionally, this gives the managers/coaches of Lettuce Work an opportunity to teach invaluable life skills such as doing laundry and completing chores assigned during each shift. After changing, they enter into the greenhouse alive with the constant cycle of high-quality, pesticide-free lettuce in varying stages of growth. The employees are responsible for harvesting, washing, drying, and packaging the lettuce into boxes before it can be delivered to their growing number of clients. With illustrational charts posted and coaches leading the way, Lettuce Work hopes each employee will build the skills necessary to enable them to eventually further their education by enrolling in college or start a career beyond the greenhouse walls.
Although it is a newly budding organization, with their first shipment of lettuce having been delivered in April of this year, Lettuce Work has already added a big name client to their repertoire. The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium has enlisted them to grow a specific species of romaine for their insatiable manatees and giraffes. In fact, 2,000 heads of this hearty lettuce are harvested and delivered to our world famous zoo each week! But don’t worry, you need not have an animal-like appetite to purchase lettuce and support their cause. You can find the Lettuce Work Spring Blend at The Hills Market and visit their website for more information on how you can donate and help grow the future work force of Central Ohio.
The Lettuce Work Spring Lettuce Blend (pictured left) traveled 22 miles to Columbus, while the lettuce mix (pictured right) traveled 2,470 miles to Columbus.
The Autism Society of Ohio
How Hydroponics Works
Grilled Sweet Corn & Blackberry Salad
*Top this seasonal salad with my Blackberry Balsamic Vinaigrette dressing.
Click on the recipe cards to print your copy: