Garden program doesn’t bear fruit | Local

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A project that employed young adults with disabilities to work as urban farmers has ended after less than a year.

CASS Housing – the initials stand for Customizable, Affordable, Sustainable and Safe – began growing fresh produce inside a shipping container on one of its Fort Wayne residential properties in May. CASS was created in 2016 to provide housing for young adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

But, said David Buuck, CASS founder and executive director, The Garden initiative wasn’t able to meet one of its four objectives – a revenue stream.

“It’s sad news. We really gave it a go,” he said last week, after the nonprofit organization’s board made the decision to shut down the program. “The sales targets were not being met.”

Buuck said the plan had been to sell the produce commercially to restaurants and groceries as well as directly to individuals. The offerings included fresh lettuce and herbs grown hydroponically, with water and nutrients instead of soil.

But the program, which employed three CASS residents, ran into the realities of the food chain. Groceries and restaurants depend on big companies for fresh produce and have very low profit margins, Buuck explained.

The businesses weren’t willing to pay more for the produce or deal with another supplier, as they also were coping with pandemic woes, he said.

Buuck said the project had better success with individuals, but not enough to sustain itself. In addition, the person supervising the project left the job and would have had to be replaced.

CASS’ leaders decided it would be better to shift time and financial resources to additional housing, Buuck said. The new plan is to concentrate on building new “family residences,” in demand among those on the organization’s 100-person waiting list, he said.

Family residences have a full-time caretaker family living on the second level of a home, while three clients live in bedroom units on the first floor, which will also have shared space.

“As opposed to independent living, this is more like a family setting,” Buuck said. The organization plans to break ground on the first such home in the spring and open it this year, he said.

As for the produce trailer, it will be put on the market, where, Buuck said, a buyer will likely be found. “We’ve had four or five folks looking to (buy) it,” he said.

The organization also plans to continue paying workers for a time and provide severance pay. The displaced workers will also receive assistance in finding other jobs, Buuck said.

“Everybody was sad,” he said of the closing, noting the project confirmed his conviction that meaningful work and structured days are necessary for affected young adults to thrive.

“There’s been no hard feelings. Everybody has been extremely understanding,” Buuck said, adding CASS “just couldn’t continue to expose ourselves to (financial) risk.”

He still believes the project, suggested by a parent of a CASS client, was “a good idea.” He hopes that CASS’ discontinuation of it will become an opportunity for someone else to take it up.

“There are plenty of good ideas out there,” Buuck said. “But that doesn’t mean we have to do them.”

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