Behind the Port Authority Bus Terminal, Tiffany Triplett Henkel of New York City Metro Baptist tends to rooftop plots of vegetables and fruits.
On a rooftop in New York City Hell's Kitchen one sweltering Thursday in August, four teens were weeding, deadheading and watering plants arrayed in 52 shallow kiddie pools plus several deeper pots and planters. From June to November, this ingenious farm yields peas, kale, potatoes, tomatoes, bok choy, blueberries and other fruits and vegetables. The bounty is headed downstairs to the shelves of the food pantry run by the Metro Baptist Church.
"In 2008, when Hell's Kitchen was booming, affordable food options got pushed out," said Tiffany Triplett Henkel, Metro Baptist's Pastor and Executive Director of Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries. In the past decade, Ninth Avenue between West 35th and West 45th streets lost three produce markets, four greengrocers, a fish market, four butchers and two supermarkets, according to Community Board 4. "More people than ever were coming to our pantry, and these were working folks," she said. Henkel surveyed the patrons and found that fresh produce, in particular, had become inaccessible.
In 2011, after a year of planning with the nonprofit Clinton Housing Development Co. and the nearby Metropolitan Community Church, Henkel built the Hell's Kitchen Farm Project with $30,000 from the United Way of New York City's Seed Grant program. That grant purchased initial supplies, the kiddie pools were an inexpensive answer to the roof's weight-bearing limit, and paid for an engineer to review the plans. Volunteers did most of the setup work: More than 1,000 per year climb up the church's five flights to tend the crops. The farm now runs on about $10,000 annually from donations and grants to pay a part-time staff to run educational programs like a summer internship for local high school students. A partnership with New Jersey's Nolasco Farms gives residents access to food that the farm cannot grow: Those eligible for the City's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program can pay $12.50 for a weekly farm share that feeds a family of four.
These programs play into Henkel's larger mission: to advocate for affordable fresh-food options for low and middle-class residents and make the gentrifying community aware of food insecurity in the neighborhood. "We don't grow a massive amount," said Henkel, who explained that the farm yields about 400 pounds of produce a season to help feed the 800 people who visit the pantry monthly.
"We're trying to address a real problem through something that's kind of cool," she said. "It's not just a fun, sunny place to be on a Thursday."
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