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Urban Agriculture Lab

Spark-Y 'On Fire' and In the News

Spark-Y 'On Fire' and In the News

Things have been heating up this summer here at Spark-Y, with awards, grants, and even a snippet of our organization on HBO.

The Latest and Greatest:

Spark-Y is featured in Minneapolis/St.Paul Business Journal for Minne Inno Award
We are the grateful recipients of a Minne Inno award, recognizing Twin Cities' startups that are blazing trails in technology and innovation. Spark-Y was awarded for innovation in Education and was subsequently in Minneapolis/St.Paul Business Journal - full article here.

Spark-Y recipient of major grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to fund Northeast Sustainability Hub
This grant will go towards the creation of a Northeast Sustainability Hub at our headquarters in The Casket Arts building. This project will include an expansion of our Urban Agriculture Lab into a farm surrounding the Casket Arts Building, including:

  • community farming zone to grow fresh, local produce, including raised garden beds

  • pollinators houses

  • composting

  • tools storage for outdoor work.

Through this project, we are empowering more community members, achieving a greater environmental impact, and strengthen our local economy.

In keeping with our self-sustaining model, the expansion will be naturally embedded into our operations — leveraging our established position as a community leader in education and sustainability to provide a new center for urban agricultural growth and discovery -- the Northeast Sustainability Hub.

HBO --- Wyatt Cenac's show, “Problem Areas,” came to Minneapolis to visit the Spark-Y Urban Agriculture Lab
Spark-Y’s microgreens timber-frame tower and Caitlin Barnhart, Spark-Y Urban Farm Manager, were featured in clips of the HBO show, “Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas.” HBO came to town to discuss health and school lunches and interview Minneapolis Public Schools Culinary and Wellness Director, Bertrand Weber, who connected show producers to Spark-Y through the youth in our Thomas Edison High School Program. This school program focuses on garden-to-cafeteria food, through an in-school aquaponics system and gardens combined with hands-on education for credit.

Staff and youth from Edison High School were filmed for for the day at our headquarters in the Casket Arts Building, an experience our youth were very excited about. You can watch the full episode here. And those microgreens Wyatt is staring so lovingly at? Yeah! That’s us!

Wyatt Cenac with Spark-Y staff and Edison youth.

Wyatt Cenac with Spark-Y staff and Edison youth.

Special thanks to our supporters, partners, and friends for sharing our work and helping us to continue our mission of youth empowerment!

Breaking Barriers, Creating Change

Breaking Barriers, Creating Change

The following blog post was written by Caitlin Barnhart, Urban Farm Manager and Education Facilitator; with Carley Rice, Lead Education Facilitator, on the launch of Spark-Y’s On-The-Job Training Program.

What does empowerment mean?
To Spark-Y’s On-The-Job Training students, it means breaking down social and economic barriers.


Through a partnership with Summit Academy OIC, and the Skills and Opportunities for Achievement & Responsibility (SOAR) Workforce, Spark-Y was able to offer a brand new program this past semester: A 6-week immersive job training course in which students learn professional development skills and have the opportunity to become a ServSafe Certified Food Manager - an industry-recognized certification that allows them to compete in the workforce at a level above their peers.

This program is vastly different from our traditional programming. It's the first time that completing our course comes with a professional, industry-recognized accreditation. It’s also the first time we’ve limited participation to those who are 18-24 years of age and who have a history with the legal system.

A major goal of this program is to overcome barriers that have held back historically disadvantaged populations and to help close the opportunity gap. We are doing this by:

  • Sending job opportunities to students, teaching youth how to find jobs they are passionate about.

  • Working with students to develop interviewing skills.

  • Helping students create resumes and apply for jobs.

  • Creating a support system that they can rely on.

One story I would like to highlight is that of King Heirs. King is a student at the Minnesota Internship Center (MNIC), a high school for youth that are seeking additional support to help them graduate. MNIC is one of our earlier school partners and the site of our first-ever, in-school program back in 2009. King learned of our On-The-Job Training program through the MNIC and immediately applied. He was the only student of 8 enrolled who showed up for every single class, constantly going above-and-beyond to achieve the goals that he set for himself. Homework was not a part of this training program, but that didn’t stop King from regularly asking us to send him links to practice exams or if he could take home next week’s assignments to finish over the weekend. When it came down to it, King was the only student who took responsibility for getting himself downtown to the exam center at 8am on a Thursday morning. He sat through a mandatory 8 hour training session, and then passed his ServSafe exam with flying colors! During one of the course days we were discussing passion and how it relates to career choice. King expressed his desire to become a millionaire one day and then he said something that will always stick with me: “Someday, when I’m a millionaire, I’m going to donate a bunch of money to Spark-Y.” Sometimes having an impact on one student’s life is truly a success story.


This program has a huge potential for students like King who are willing to stick it out through to the end, though it certainly wasn’t all daisies all the time. Carley and I quickly learned that a couple of white girls from the burbs weren’t going to make much of an impression on these students. So what did we do? We brought in speakers that had more similarly aligned backgrounds, and could really connect with the students about their experiences. Shout out to Quinten Osgood, Community Outreach Coordinator for Twin Cities RISE!, and to Bob Blake, owner of Solar Bear and organizer for MN Interfaith Power and Light. These two speakers provided relatable stories and encouragement to the students, while adding to the network of professionals and mentors available to them.

This first On-The-Job Training program was most certainly a learning experience that we now have the knowledge to improve. In the future, we plan to integrate this program more closely with our others by: encouraging participation from current or previous Spark-Y students; offering positions in our Summer Internship following the training course; and working with Summit Academy to enroll students into college courses post training program. Whatever the future holds for these students, Spark-Y has their back. And as an organization, we will continue to provide pathways that breakdown socio-economic barriers and create positive change for our youth.

Spark-Y Impact Report: 2017-18

Spark-Y Impact Report: 2017-18

Youth Empowerment. This is our mission as an organization and also a directive that shapes our organization - from the curriculum we deliver in our school programs and the real-world approach we take in our summer internship program, to the opportunities for community outreach and youth employment we provide through Urban Agriculture Lab. These three branches of our organization work systemically to positively impact Twin Cities youth, providing multiple pathways for empowerment and growth both within and beyond our organization.

Perhaps this is why so many of our Spark-Y youth begin in our school programs, graduate from our summer internship program, and go on to gain employment at Spark-Y or other organizations as a result of their experiences.

As an organization we are always asking ourselves the same question: How do we measure youth empowerment?
Can it be measured by student grades in our school programs?
Or by the dollar value of projects completed in our summer internship?

If you ask one of our Sustainability Educators, they might tell you other stories of empowerment:

  • The transformation of disengaged students who rally to save a classroom fish, complete an assignment for the first time in their classroom history, or join an elective leadership opportunity (our elementary Captains program).

  • The marvel of watching student-led creations come to life, as young people use STEM-based learning and utilize power tools to design, build, and cultivate their own sustainable systems.

  • Youth interns sharing their summer internship successes on stage in front of our Minneapolis Mayor, Jacob Frey - then going on to secure jobs and admittance to higher education programs as a result of their experiences.

As we continue to share these meaningful stories of youth empowerment on our blog, Facebook, and Instagram we also want to share the other side of how we measure youth empowerment, through our Spark-Y Impact Report. This report is designed to help us as an organization measure our successes, focus our future efforts, and paint a broader picture for our supporters (that’s you!) the value of your investment in our organization.

Together, we are empowering more Twin Cities youth than ever before.


Total Youth Served in 2017/18: 1,926

School Programs:

This branch of Spark-Y provides hands-on education, rooted in sustainability and entrepreneurship to Twin Cities youth in school classrooms, workshops, one-time events, and customized programming.

In 2017/18 Spark-Y provided curriculum for:

  • 13 schools

  • 18 regularly occurring school programs or 2,799 class periods and 1,334 youth regularly served

  • Workshops and one-time events impacting 401 youth and 191 adults

  • Reaching a total of 1,735 youth

Within our school programs, youth engaged in hands-on curriculum that resulted in:

  • 10 permanent in-school aquaponics systems

  • 35 mini-aquaponics systems

  • 4 permanent vermicompost systems


Did you know?

In 2017-2018 Spark-Y doubled the number of permanent aquaponics systems built in the previous year.

Another marker of impact in 2017-18 was our expanded reach and lasting impact within of our partnerships with Twin Cities Schools:

  • Addition of Edison High School LEAF (Leadership Education Agriculture Future) program - a diploma certification with Spark-Y programming spanning 5 class offerings.

  • Our third year of programming at Roosevelt High School, including our urban farm and EASY Pro (Edible Schoolyard Professional) programs.

  • Our seventh year at School of Environmental Studies.

  • We also celebrated our fifth year at Southside Family Charter.

Fast Fact:
After participating in a Spark-Y school program, 62% of youth reported knowing ways they can live more sustainably.

Spark-Y continued to expand interpersonal partnerships:

  • 2 school interns from a continued partnership with HECUA program (non-profit with a focus on social justice, human rights and sustainability).

  • 2 AmeriCorps members on staff.

Urban Agriculture Lab (UAL)

The second branch of Spark-Y, the Urban Agriculture Lab, provides support to our school programs through sustainable systems research, facilitation of youth classroom builds, and ongoing maintenance to in-classroom systems. The UAL operates in indoor production facility, providing a sustainable revenue model for the organization and a youth job pathway. Lastly, the UAL is home to our DIY Bio Lab, equipping our classrooms with new, innovative science projects and providing workshops and outreach throughout the Twin Cities.

In 2017/18 the Urban Ag Lab:

Reached 167 youth and 175 adults through tours.

  • Impacted 199 youth with hands-on STEM workshops, in a new partnership with Hennepin County Libraries.

  • Provided a work-based learning internship with 3 Edison students, complete with class credits and stipends.

  • Employed 1 youth apprentice.

  • Impacted 23 youth at our second year in attendance as speakers at CONvergence.

  • Hosted 47 volunteers.


Fast Fact:

Spark-Y moved office headquarters in August of 2018, moving their 1,300 square foot indoor aquaponics system to construct a timber-frame, vertical growing system at their new offices in Northeast Minneapolis.

Additionally, the Urban Ag Lab participated in the following:

  • Hosted a Spring Plant sale, attracting hundreds of visitors.

  • Featured exhibitor at the Minnesota State Fair, Common Table.

  • A stop on the 2018 Farm Tour.

Summer Internship

The third branch of our organization, the Summer Internship Program, a sustainability bootcamp where young people gain real-world experience through hands-on projects with our Twin Cities partners.

In 2018 Spark-Y provided 41 paid internship positions for our youth, completing:

  • Design and build of a two-ton timber frame aquaponics system

  • A rain garden

  • Indoor aquaponics system

  • Garden shed

2018 interns receiving paid stipends, with Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, in front of a youth-built timber frame aquaponics system at the Spark-Y Open House.

2018 interns receiving paid stipends, with Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, in front of a youth-built timber frame aquaponics system at the Spark-Y Open House.

Looking ahead:

With a nod to this last year’s accomplishments, we also look forward to focusing our efforts in key areas of growth to create even more impact in the year to come.

This includes:

  • Creating even more ways to measure our impact, including, entrance / exit surveys and methods of qualitative data collection.

  • Expanding our community workshop offerings to build interest and curiosity in new communities.

  • Thinking of new and innovative ways to fund and expand into new school partnerships, including the ten schools on our current wait list.

  • Increasing our employment pathways.

  • Adding professional certifications to our work based learning programs.

We are very excited to share this information with you. We appreciate your continued support of our organization and other Twin Cities organizations that are actively uplifting the lives of youth all around us. We could not do this work without you. We thank all of our volunteers, staff, Board, fiscal contributors, partners, and cheerleaders for your ongoing support.

Let’s keep building towards empowering our youth, so that they can go on to empower their families, schools, and our greater community!


A Special Thanks:

In the last month we have received in-kind support of our organization from the Joan Brick McHugh memorial. These donations were given to honor her memory, and for that, we are sincerely grateful. We would also like to recognize Spark-Y Founder, Mary Helen Franze, for her ten years of service on our Board of Directors and for choosing Spark-Y to honor her mother's memory.

Leading the Charge for Women in Urban Ag

Leading the Charge for Women in Urban Ag

The following blog post profiles Urban Farm Manager, Caitlin Barnhart,
as a part of our Spark-Y Staff Spotlight Series.

The backbone of Spark-Y is sustainability and entrepreneurship, two practices embodied in the staff the organization employs. In the instance of one staff member, another story can be told: the rise of women in urban agriculture.

Just before giving a tour to a group of students through the Urban Agriculture Lab, Caitlin Barnhart, Spark-Y Urban Farm Manager sat down to share her experiences as a staff member and her journey into urban agriculture.

“Especially when younger girls come in [to the Urban Agriculture Lab] I think they see that as a cool thing. It’s really not traditional that they see a female in this role. And a lot of the time, I think they are more willing to ask a question, are excited about what I do, and are more willing to say: ‘Hey! I want to do that too!’”

That wasn’t necessarily the case for Barnhart, who questioned whether there were role for women in this field. Fresh out of college, she noticed the majority of roles held in agriculture were held by men.

Graduate of the University of Minnesota in Food Systems, with a minor in Sustainable Agriculture, Barnhart was paired with Spark-Y as a community partnership experience in one of her capstone classes. Following her experience, she signed up for Spark-Y’s Summer Internship program in 2015 and was hired at a Spark-Y Education Facilitator while still in school.

It was a month before Barnhart was to graduate when she sat down with Nick Phelps, professor and mentor. He asked her questions about what she was passionate about and what she saw herself doing post-graduation. “I think my direct quote was I want Sam Menzies’ job at Spark-Y,” says Barnhart. Sam Menzies was Operations Manager at Spark-Y and had played a critical role in designing and building the organization’s 1,300 square foot indoor urban farm in South Minneapolis. Phelps encouraged Barnhart to pursue the position.

Spark-Y Urban Ag Lab:

Post-graduation Barnhart accepted a full-time Education Facilitator position at Spark-Y, where her role was teaching sustainability and entrepreneurship to youth in classrooms through hands-on sustainable systems. “While I loved that experience, I also realized that my passion is more on the farming and the hands-on side of things,” reflected Barnhart. This prompted Barnhart to look to other areas of the organization that held greater interest for her, culminating in a 14-page proposal focused on what she could contribute towards the urban agriculture arm of the organization. She presented her plan to Zach Robinson, Spark-Y Executive Director. “He said, ‘Yeah, I love that. Your energy is great and you’re going to do that.’ And today I am pretty much doing all of those things.”

Urban Farm Manager at Spark-Y since September of 2017, Barnhart did in-fact gain Sam Menzies job. Today, Menzies works as Operations Director for Spark-Y overseeing sustainable systems at the Urban Agriculture Lab and in the classrooms.

Working with a small, dedicated team, the Urban Agriculture Lab has seem more than a few changes since Barnhart came aboard, including a partnership with Gentleman Forager to sell microgreens to local restaurants, indoor growing expansions such as hydroponic growing towers, fish breeding tanks, and a soil lab completed with the help of a 2017 internship team.  Menzies and Barnhart also developed and executed a Spark-Y Plant Sale in 2017 and 2018, adding another revenue stream to the organization’s mission of youth empowerment.

“Caitlin’s passion for urban farming has contributed to the Urban Ag Lab’s highest revenue in a season to-date,” says Menzies. “And with a young staff, empowerment within our organization is critical. We encourage our staff to be creative, take risks, and bring their visions to life. Caitlin embodies this philosophy.”


Spark-Y Microgreens



Barnhart feels that she has found her place within the organization. “I’m roughly fresh out of college, and not a lot of people get the level of freedom or responsibility that I get in this role - and that’s what I really enjoy about Spark-Y,” she adds.

There have been some defining moments for Barnhart along the way, including a Spark-Y partner calling to ask if she would be willing to give a tour to another young female interested in the field of agriculture or a group of fourth graders that enjoyed aquaponically-grown red veined sorrel after she told them it tastes like Sour Patch Kids candy. She thinks that youth having the opportunity to tour a growing facility at a young age makes a difference, noting that she did not become aware of sustainability or urban farming until a class in college.

Barnhart adding "worm juice" from vermicompost systems to aquaponic-grown red veined sorrel.

Barnhart adding "worm juice" from vermicompost systems to aquaponic-grown red veined sorrel.

Today, Barnhart recalls just how important it is to find something you are passionate about and stick with it. A passion that is easily displayed in Barnhart’s contributions to the Urban Agriculture Lab and the way she speaks about her position: “I love the smell of dirt, the feeling of nature, you know, that feeling you get when you walk outside on a dewy morning is the same feeling you get when you walk into this lab and it’s 20-degrees outside. It’s a loving, nurturing feeling and you just don’t find that anywhere else.” A far cry from a young college graduate wondering if there was a place for her in urban agriculture.