New rooftop farm takes aim at Hell’s Kitchen fresh produce shortage



Hell’s Kitchen Farm Project on the rooftop of Metro Baptist Church near Port Authority. Photo: Andrew R. Calderon

If all goes according to plan, Hell’s Kitchen can expect its second non-profit rooftop farm by the summer of 2018.

Seeds to Soil, a non-profit urban farm, will operate and manage the rooftop on 54th between 9th and 10th avenues, where the non-profit Prime Produce Guild owns a two-story building used as an event space and coffee shop. Michelle Jackson, Seeds to Soil’s founder, intends to build out the Guild’s roof for the benefit of local residents who lack access to fresh produce and community spaces.

“I was introduced to the project as they were shoring up the roof for the weight load of the garden,” explains Jackson, who met the Guild’s partner Christopher Chavez through a mutual friend. After exploring the roof and agreeing on the need for more gardens and farms in Hell’s Kitchen, Jackson met two of the partners and later received permission from the Guild to develop a plan.  

Of Manhattan’s 12 community districts, Hell’s Kitchen is the eighth most food insecure district, according to a 2016 report by NYC Food Bank, a non-profit food bank and food research institute. NYC Food Bank also reports that for all five boroughs of New York City, the food insecurity rate is about 11% above the national average, meaning that roughly 1.3 million NYC residents are unable to access nutritional food at least three times a day. These figures do not include the city’s homeless population.

“We want to be hyper, hyper local. I won’t know exactly what I am growing until I reach out to the surrounding community,” explained Jackson in a phone interview. She anticipates growing “food, herbs and native plants to support the health and well-being of Hell’s Kitchen, its residents, and its urban ecology.”

Tiffany Hankel, executive director of Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries, a non-profit affiliate of Metro Baptist Church, is a founder of the Hell’s Kitchen Farm Project, a rooftop farm that supplies the church’s food pantry. The pantry serves about 300 people every other week. She was enthusiastic about new farmers coming to the area and was emphatic about collaboration. “Success is contingent on network,” she said, expressing hope that the two farms should work together.  

On a walking tour of Clinton Community Garden, one the largest community gardens in Hell’s Kitchen, Clinton steering committee member John Keenam also underlined the importance of networking, even though he doubted it would happen. “It’s impossible,” he said. “It’s hard enough to get the committee to work together.” 

While Jackson waits for the roof to be ready, she’s reaching out to community gardens, CSAs, street level gardens, farmers markets and grocery stores to connect to services that already exist and “figure out what makes sense in terms of providing access to local residents.”

Clifford Taylor, a Hell’s Kitchen homeless man who frequents area food pantries, said he appreciates the volunteers who go out of their way to get people the food they need. “More farmers are welcome here,” he said. “The problem for us on the streets is that we can’t cook.” But he’s grateful for what he can get, mainly precooked or canned meals.

Lack of cookware or skill is a challenge for farms and pantries alike. “A lot of people, especially young people, don’t know how to use the food,” said Kay Anderson, a volunteer at Hell’s Kitchen Farm Project. She believes good cooking practices start at home — and when that’s not an option, at community centers, like the Hell’s Kitchen Farm Project. 

Seeds to Soil plans to curate a space for locals to learn how to grow food, work together on projects, identify nutritional food, and prepare meals with fresh vegetables. Jackson anticipates funding will come from grants until the garden becomes productive enough to be self-sustaining. “Knowing what the community wants comes first, she said. “The business model will come later,” though at the moment she’s not quite sure how the project will self-sustain.

Correction: A previous version of the article stated that Hell’s Kitchen is the eight most food insecure county district. County was replaced with community.