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DINING A LA KING: Microenterprise produces a whole other set of benefits

Microenterprise produces a whole other set of benefits

Apr 30, 2018 |

ELKHART — Teen Challenge took on a green challenge.

North Central Indiana Teen Challenge, located on former Bayer Corp. property on the north side of Elkhart, is focused on helping men of various ages win the battle over their drug addictions.

Now it has a greenhouse where fish, water, plants and chemistry all come together, tended by men in or working for the program, to grow food.

The residential program, where men often stay 12 to 15 months, has used microenterprise to raise money for programming, including auto detailing. Yet it’s a new venture, one of raising lettuces and herbs, that is both growing financially and creating a whole set of other benefits.

Using technology from Glynn Barber and Scott Truex, a greenhouse was constructed a greenhouse in 2015 for the Life Center, a job skills initiative. Scott Tuttle handed off the greenhouse to Teen Challenge, which came to Elkhart in 2010. It’s one of more than 1,110 centers in more than 100 countries.

The greenhouse was being constructed about the same time Joey Sarver was graduating from the program, so he stayed on as an intern to learn how to grow greens in an aquaponic system. “The timing it was awesome,” said Andy Collins, director of the program.

“There’s times I wanted to pack it in,” said Sarver of his learning process. The next day, he’d have a breakthrough and find a solution to the challenge. “God, he just wanted that obedience,” Sarver said.

That trial and error was a blessing because of what it taught him, he said. Now, he’s helping Barber write a manual for the systems he sells.

A hydroponic system relies on water and additives. The aquaponic system starts with fish, in this case perch and bluegill, to eat food. What they release into the water after they eat their food becomes food for the plants. “It’s really cultivating fish waste,” said Collins.

Ammonia released by the fish is eaten by one bacteria to create a nitrite. A second bacteria converts it to nitrates, which feed the plants. That essentially cleans the water that goes back into the fish tank.

“The plants are depending on the fish and the fish are dependent on the plants,” Sarver said.

In a few weeks, freshwater blue lobsters will go into the troughs underneath the plants. They’ll nibble on the dead roots of the plants and the trimming will result in even healthier, more vibrant plants, Sarver said.

In its first year, as about a dozen types of lettuces were harvested, the greens became were served to the 48 men in the program. They live in a new residential center that opened in February 2017. They can only eat so much lettuce, so as production increased, Sarver and Collins sought buyers.

They took some to Lucchese’s Italian Restaurant, which like other local restaurants has come to rely more on local greens than those coming in plastic bags from California. Owner and executive chef Michele Lucchese fell in love with the quality and longevity of the greens and asked for more. These days, Sarver makes three deliveries a week of at least 26 pounds of greens. That’s a lot of salad mix.

At a time when an e. coli outbreak means that romaine lettuce is hard to come by nationally, the crop at Teen Challenge is tall and vibrant. It’s part of what’s being used in salads at Lucchese’s and Teen Challenge.

The basil is also hearty. Kale is growing tall and strong. The arugula is packed with flavor.

The food helps restore the health of those in the program as they battle back from drug addiction. “Our men need nutrient rich food,” Collins said.

As they go to worship and prayer times, to classes about forgiveness and God’s love, the staff is trying to feed their spirits.

The greenhouse, with its plants and fish, also produces another harvest in the men working there. “The greenhouse is incredibly therapeutic,” said Collins.

The greenhouse is starting to bring in several thousand dollars of monthly income into Teen Challenge. When Elkhart firefighters took the first crop of bluegill and had a fish fry, they donated money back to the program.

A second greenhouse is being planned, which could expand wholesale or retail marketing opportunities. For now, you’ll have to go to Lucchese’s to taste these remarkable greens.

I’m hungry. Let’s eat.

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