Rooftop Farm Feeds Those Struggling to Stay in Hell’s Kitchen

Photo by Eileen Stukane Hell’s Kitchen Farm Project coordinator Lauren Baccus, on the roof of Metro Baptist Church.
Photo by Eileen Stukane
Hell’s Kitchen Farm Project coordinator Lauren Baccus, on the roof of Metro Baptist Church.

BY EILEEN STUKANE | A man was knocking at the front door of Metro Baptist Church on West 40th Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, when Chelsea Now arrived to cover the rooftop Hell’s Kitchen Farm Project (HKFP), which has grown enough fresh organic produce to provide Metro’s Food Pantry with 175 pounds of food so far this year. The man was requesting a toiletry kit, which the church provides as part of its social services for the needy.

Around the corner on Ninth Avenue, a small cup of organic coffee cost three dollars. The extremes that exist in a changing Hell’s Kitchen have prompted Chelsea Now to take a closer look at this Community Board 4 neighborhood as it continues its stunning transformation from a gritty working class district of low-rise buildings and tenements, to an area of upscale, skyscraping, commercial and residential towers with amenities for the wealthy. The sparkling towers belie what’s happening on the ground, as many long-time residents struggle to survive in a community of higher costs, and that’s where the HKFP comes in. The food grown on Metro’s roof offers a lifeline.

Now in its third growing season, the HKFP planted its first seeds in 2011, thanks to the efforts of four community groups: Metro Baptist Church, Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries (the nonprofit arm of the church), Metropolitan Community Church of New York, and Clinton Housing Development Company (CHDC).

The farm was initially the brainchild of Alan Sherouse, former pastor of Metro Baptist Church, who at the time recognized the dearth of fresh produce in his Hell’s Kitchen community.

“So three years ago, 70 volunteers, five flights of stairs and seven tons of soil made its way up here in a bucket brigade,” says Lauren Baccus, who is in her second season as farm coordinator through Metro’s partnership with CHDC. The five-story Metro rooftop, on a church that was built at the turn of the 20th century, was not structurally able to hold the weight of a 4,000-square-foot field of soil. The solution was found in turning 52 kiddie pools into individual planters set on styrofoam blocks.

The next challenge to urban agriculture was the pigeons. “Apparently pigeons eat everything, fries and Swiss chard,” says Baccus. Encircled by wire cages and topped with chicken wire, the 52 planters are now pigeon-protected and the harvest has risen from 60 pounds in the first year to 175 pounds today. On this late summer/early fall day, there continue to be vegetables ready to pick. Says Baccus, “We have tomatoes easing on out, cucumbers from summer finishing up, Swiss chard. We have lettuce coming in, lots of beans, spinach, mustard greens, turnips, radishes, baby carrots. Right now, we’re planting cooler weather crops, more of the greens come up through the fall.”  The farm is active from April through November and welcomes volunteers and community participation.

Photo by Lauren Baccus The Hell’s Kitchen Farm Project helps feed those who find it difficult to make ends meet in the increasingly expensive neighborhood.
Photo by Lauren Baccus
The Hell’s Kitchen Farm Project helps feed those who find it difficult to make ends meet in the increasingly expensive neighborhood.

Mentally challenged adults in a program sponsored by the Association for the Help of Retarded Children (AHRC) arrive for their weekly volunteer visit, to water and harvest crops. Shikha Rozario, the AHRC group supervisor, explains that the adults who come to the farm have the opportunity to communicate with other people in society, and they learn to reference the names of plants with the foods they eat.

“When I first brought people here for orientation, the reaction was, ‘Wow, what a nice feeling,’” says Rozario. Another outreach group, Page-Turners, a Rauschenbusch after-school program, brings first and second graders to the farm once a month, and third through fifth graders once a week, for a hands-on experience in learning the relationship between crops and food.  Even on the coldest days of winter, the children continue indoors, studying plants, worms and soil. However, the ability of Metro’s rooftop farm to provide for those who need sustenance — and their numbers are growing — is by far the greatest role the farm plays in Hell’s Kitchen.

Rev. Tiffany Triplett Henkel, pastor/executive director, Metro Baptist Church/Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries, has been at the church since 2005, and she has seen the visitors to Metro’s Food Pantry increase dramatically. “In my tenure we’ve seen more people seeking services, especially emergency food services, pretty drastically,” she says, “Since 2008 we’ve seen even more of a spike, and a lot of those who are coming are people who have jobs, are working, are trying to make ends meet With rents as high as they are, lots of folks are in shelters, but many are not.”

Rev. Henkel explains that when Metro started a food program decades ago, it was for those vulnerable people living on the street or just getting off the street, “but now it’s not. It’s whole families living in tight quarters in Hell’s Kitchen because that’s the only way they can stay here with the shifts in all of the housing. Generations on top of generations are living in small spaces.”

According to A.J. Walton, a co-director of the Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries Food Pantry in the church, the Pantry is now providing food for 600 to 800 people a month, serves an ethnically diverse population from one to six people in a household, and is open four Saturday mornings a month (there are enough struggling people to keep about 600 food pantries active citywide). Along with nonperishable canned foods, households are encouraged to take the freshly picked produce from the roof.

As with most of the city’s food programs, Metro strives to provide three full days of food. Based on a “number-in-household” point system, people choose from the food groups: protein, grain, fruits and vegetables, dairy. “Initially, the homeless and the elderly made up a good portion of our constituency,” says Walton, “but now we have lots of individuals who work, lots of families with children, and less seniors than previous years…the decrease in our senior population has a lot to do with the fact that many of them are having to leave the neighborhood and relocate.”  Walton notes the ever-rising cost of fresh food is driving more working families to the Pantry.Spt25CN_p3_Farm

“We don’t expect the farm to feed everybody, but we do have a great model going on here of what can be done,” says Baccus, “and we also have created Community Supported Agriculture, a CSA.”

A CSA is a cooperative program in which people who have the means, pay at the start of a growing season, for shares of the harvest of a farmer chosen by the HKFP. The farmer then delivers organic vegetables and herbs to Metro each week for 22 weeks beginning in June – the fresh food is divided among the shareholders. Some donors have purchased CSA shares of food to donate back to the Pantry, which also receives food from Food Bank of NYC, City Harvest, CHDC (through a grant from United Way of NYC) and Driscoll Foods. An annual fundraiser — this year’s will be on October 30th at the church — also helps to support the HK Farm Project and the Pantry.

Metro Baptist Church is a five-story building, which must make its rooftop farm a diminutive sight from the multiple 40-story glass and steel towers that surround it. Yet through Metro/Rauschenbusch, the HKFP is doing a mighty job in helping to feed hungry New Yorkers.

“Other parts of the city that are gentrified, the Lower East Side, or Harlem, for example, existing buildings are reclaimed and renovated,” says Rev. Henkel. “So if you look at a neighborhood, for the most part there’s the same building that was there 50 years ago, but not in Hell’s Kitchen. Here, there are so many new buildings, they’re requiring people to maneuver to figure out whether they can be in this part of town. If they are able to find a place they can afford, often there are multiple generations in one home.  We have to be very careful for people not to get lost in the shadows of the buildings that are going up.”

For more information, visit hellskitchenfarmproject.org.