High in the Sky: Rooftop Farming in Hell’s Kitchen

National Hunger Clearinghouse staff visited the Hell’s Kitchen Rooftop Farm Project as part of an urban agriculture tour put on by the Partnership for a Healthier Manhattan. This coalition of community organizations, funded by a CDC Community Transformation Grant, is looking at how urban agriculture can be used to increase access to healthier food. Through site visits and interviews, the Partnership plans to develop toolkits on how Manhattan residents can create their own urban agriculture projects.

In the center of bustling midtown Manhattan lies an innovative example of how you can grow food anywhere. Actually, it is several flights above the streets of midtown on the rooftop of the Metro Baptist Church in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, also known as Clinton. The Hell’s Kitchen Rooftop Farm Project is a collaborative initiative of the Metro Baptist Church, Clinton Housing Development Company and Rauschenbusch Metropolitan Ministries. The farm was started because these organizations recognized that it was difficult for people in the neighborhood to access healthy food, especially those who rely on emergency food. The farm’s goal is to bring wholesome food to the Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries Food Pantry, which serves 600 participants per month. In its third year, it hopes to supply the food pantry with 300 pounds of fresh produce — doubling what it was able to produce last year.

What make the Hell’s Kitchen Rooftop Farm Project even more innovative are its raised beds.  Fruits and vegetables are grown in 52 plastic kiddie pools with holes drilled into the bottom of each bed to facilitate drainage. The kiddie pools are durable, lightweight and can be used in a variety of spaces, adding 1000 square feet of land to the farm in which to grow basil, beans, blueberries, cabbage, collard greens, chives, cucumbers, eggplant, garlic, kale, lettuce, oregano, peas, peppers, radishes, rosemary, scallions and tomatoes. The raised beds are filled with a lightweight shale-based soil, which eases the burden of otherwise heavy soil of the beds on the rooftop.

In addition to limited space, farming on a rooftop has unique challenges. There aren’t problems with flies because the garden is four flights up, but the pigeons have no issues with the height and are the farms most menacing pests. The lack of access to a rooftop water source poses a challenge as volunteers must haul water up four flights of stairs (no elevator, either). However, these constraints pale in comparison to the advantages the Farm offers the neighborhood: hands-on farm education for children, fresh produce for their community and an opportunity for neighborhood residents to get their hands dirty and get closer to their food. The volunteer-led effort can be easily replicated and demonstrates that with creativity, limited space and funds don’t need to be obstacles to sourcing fresh produce.

Anyone is welcome to help out and learn about farming on the rooftop during their weekly workdays:

  • Tuesday from 3-6pm
  • First Saturdays of each month from 10am-12pm

The Hell’s Kitchen Rooftop Farm Project is located at 410 W. 40th Street. For more information, visit www.hellskitchenfarmproject.org.

Suzanne Babb