Six stories up in the air, 70 feet above the concrete, the earthy aroma of fresh herbs and leafy greens fills the 5,000 square foot rooftop farm located in the South Bronx in New York City. Residents of Intervale Green, the nation’s largest multi-family, Energy Star certified affordable housing development, have been going up to the rooftop to garden, recreate, and pick out fresh ingredients for dinner.
“The rooftop farm was a direct answer to what the tenants desired,” says Rebecca Eigenbauer, Director of Housing Development at the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation (WHEDco), a Bronx-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to make the Bronx a more beautiful, equitable and economically vibrant place to live, work and raise a family. Intervale Green was built on the philosophy that beautiful places can change people’s attitudes by reducing their stress and giving them greater hope. The rooftop farm is among several health and wellness programs offered by WHEDco to its residents.
“[When] I started planting stuff up there, no one would come up, or they would come up and [say things] like ‘I don’t know what this is ‘, ‘this looks weird’ or ‘I’m not going to eat that,’” recalls Shieh.
In Summer 2010, WHEDco, with the help of a United Way grant, was able to equip Intervale Green’s rooftop with hundreds of eight inch deep containers filled with nutrient rich soil. Despite a late start to the growing season, an astonishing 136.41 pounds of produce were harvested the first year.
At first; only a handful of residents were curious enough to venture up to the rooftop. Fa-Tai Shieh, Intervale Green’s Rooftop Farm Consultant, admits that getting residents to use the rooftop farm was difficult. Few residents were familiar with using fresh ingredients provided by the farm. “[When] I started planting stuff up there, no one would come up, or they would come up and [say things] like ‘I don’t know what this is ‘, ‘this looks weird’ or ‘I’m not going to eat that,’” recalls Shieh, who holds a master’s degree in Public Administration from Columbia University and teaches Urban Agriculture at the New School University.
To generate interest in the farm, Shieh—with the green-light from WHEDco—started doing weekly cooking demonstrations in the lobby, showing residents how to make easy, nutritional meals by using the vegetables harvested from the roof. “That was very successful. [The residents] got really interested. It started to slowly gain attention and people were coming up.”
“They love it and for them it’s such an amazing experience to see something grow into something they can actually eat,” says Shieh.
Last year, WHEDco decided to devote part of the farm to individual family gardens and gave households the opportunity to sign up and receive farming instructions. The program received positive feedback and six out of ten households that started, stuck with it throughout the entire farming season. The goal is for the residents to take over the farm entirely. “I see value in having the family farms because it makes it more sustainable and tenants are taking ownership over it,” says Eigenbauer. This year more tenants signed up and at a tenants’ meeting and at Intervale Green’s Spring Festival, held to commemorate the start of the planting season, an additional 15 households were ready to become caretakers of their very own vegetable garden.
“They love it and for them it’s such an amazing experience to see something grow into something they can actually eat,” says Shieh. “I have residents who come up to me and say, ‘You know after you showed me how to cook that collard greens, I’ve been eating it all the time.’ Or I’ll have residents who come up on a consistent basis to get vegetables to cook for dinner,” he adds.
Rooftop gardening has also caught the attention of the youngest residents; Shieh’s biggest fans are the children and about 20 consistently come up to the farm to help out. “For the children, it has been a transformative experience to have the opportunity to do [gardening],” says Shieh. The parents are very pleased with their children’s response to the program. “[Parents] say the farm has made their child apply themselves better in school. [The children] are talking about it all the time. They are telling their teachers about it and [parents] just notice they are more focused,” says Eigenbauer.
The greenhouse will help create that infrastructure so that it takes off by itself and becomes its own program and tenants take ownership of it,” she adds.
Attendance tends to fluctuate with a lot of different WHEDco programs explains Eigenbauer, but “with the farm, it is something that is growing.” In a recent tenant survey, residents favored more recreational space and healthy eating programs. To satisfy the tenants desires, WHEDco has proposed the idea of building a year-round garden.
The plan is to build a greenhouse in the courtyard and host educational workshops from canning to cooking demonstrations. “Having something that is 365 days a year will really cultivate the core group of tenants [interested in gardening], so they’re doing something year-round. And they are doing it, not WHEDco,” says Eigenbauer. “The greenhouse will help create that infrastructure so that it takes off by itself and becomes its own program and tenants take ownership of it,” she adds.
One particular tenant, Egypt Dees, has been very involved in gardening and has taken the initiative to start a composting program in the building. “She’s always queued into the next step to get the ship going,” says Eigenbauer. One thing is for sure, Dees’ enthusiasm is contagious and support for the gardening and healthy eating program is spreading its roots throughout Intervale Green.
WHEDco is currently using ioby to raise nearly $2,892. The project titled “The Bronx Greenhouse at Intervale Green,” is part of the Community Development Corporations (CDCs) Campaign. Every donation will be matched dollar for dollar by Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation. The greenhouse will allow residents, many who come from difficult life situations, to have a space for them to focus on health, gardening, and recreating.
Donate here to help the Intervale Green residents grow vegetables year-round!