Rooftop farm delivers bounty to Hell’s Kitchen

Posted on August 22nd, 2011 by Brett Essler in Health & Safety

The Hell’s Kitchen Farm Project donates produce to neighborhood soup kitchens. Photo: Brett Essler

Reported on Aug. 20, 2011

Against the backdrop of gleaming Midtown residential towers and the cacophony from the nearby Lincoln Tunnel sit six diagonal rows of baby pools. Yet, this is not children’s play area. It’s a rooftop farm, built by a neighborhood volunteer dedicated to providing better access to fresh food for Hell’s Kitchen.

As an Americorps volunteer at a local soup kitchen, Anthony Reuter, 24, saw firsthand the problems of trying to find fresh vegetables and fruit for the food pantries he works at in Hell’s Kitchen.

“We don’t know where the vegetables are coming from. We don’t control the price. We don’t control where we get that money from,” he recalled saying.

After a year of community planning, the result is the Hell’s Kitchen Farm Project: A 1,000-square-foot farm in the middle of the city, comprising newly planted rooftop farm and a CSA (community supported agriculture) with 34 members, both based at Metro Baptist Church on West 40th Street. Started with an urban-farm seed grant from the United Way, the farm is expected to supply 1,000 pounds of produce to the food pantries at Metro Baptist and nearby Metropolitan Community churches this summer and fall, said project coordinator Reuter. The CSA also will also donate extra food to the needy and will offer subsidized options at $440 for low-income members. A typical CSA membership costs $485 a share. The farm project, along with an expanded weekly farmers’ market, are just two of the ways residents and volunteers are trying to transform Hell’s Kitchen into a healthier neighborhood.

Food contamination scares, like Europe’s recent E.coli outbreak or the 2006 multistate spinach contamination the U.S., have heightened consumer awareness about food safety and sources, prompting local governments to try to create policies that allow more people access to fresh, affordable, and locally grown food. In New York City, the Mayor’s Office of the Food Policy Coordinator was created in 2007 to coordinate the efforts of city agencies, nonprofit groups and community members to improve such access.

Kim Kessler, the city’s food policy coordinator, said in an email that the city “leads our country in creating innovative programs to increase access to healthy foods,” noting a number of recent initiatives including incentives for food stamp usage at farmers’ markets; Green Carts that bring fresh produce to underserved communities; and new zoning that encourages supermarket development in underserved neighborhoods.

For their part, Community Board 4 is “very much in favor of green roofs and urban farming,” says David Pincus, co-chair of the Land Use Committee. The board has discussed the issue, he says, but has not yet taken an official position.

In addition to the farm project’s efforts to improve Hell’s Kitchen’s access to fresh food, the neighborhood enjoys a thriving farmers’ market presence, with Greenmarket locations at 57th Street and 9th Avenue and in the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Both farmers’ market vendors accept food stamps or other vouchers from low-income customers. The 2007-2009 American Community Survey 3-Year estimates show that 5.8 percent of Community Districts 4 and 5 residents are supported by government benefits, such as food stamps, the program for women, infants and children, known as WIC, and SNAP, a United States Department of Agriculture food assistance program.

On a recent Wednesday at lunchtime, the market was teeming with local residents and workers from nearby Midtown office buildings.

According to Alexis Stevens, food access projects manager at Greenmarket, which organizes the city’s farmers’ markets, the 57th Street Greenmarket saw a 30 percent increase in customer walk-throughs between 2009 and 2010. Food stamp sales at that location have averaged about $50 per market day since vendors began accepting them in September 2010. Comparative data for the Port Authority market was not available.

Linda Rivera works in Hell’s Kitchen but was visiting the 57th Street farmers’ market for the first time. For her, a discount is the incentive to shop local. “I get coupons to come to the fresh market,” she says. “For my babies, I’m in the WIC program.”

Mike Dougherty of Meredith’s Bread, who sells at the 57th Street Greenmarket every Wednesday and Saturday, says he’s seen a roughly 15 percent increase in sales volume over the last year.

“The market is catching on,” he said of the Hell’s Kitchen location. “Customers want fresh food. They want to know it’s coming here fresh.”

According to Kubi Ackerman, project manager at Columbia University’s Urban Design Lab, achieving food security requires “policy incentives as well as a critical mass of people willing to invest some serious effort and equity into developing an alternative system. It will also require continued awareness of the issue on the part of the consuming public.”

For Reuter, the ultimate goal for the farm project is to give Hell’s Kitchen an abundant amount of fresh, healthy and local food.

“Urban farming and the local movement have become mainstream,” Reuter says. “We don’t have to explain it to people, and that’s great.”

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