Food for Thought

Food for Thought

Atsuko Quirk

Atop the Robert Simon Complex’s public school building in the East Village, on the afternoon of October 12, fourth grader Malik Shah tossed a kale salad that had been harvested from the school’s new rooftop farm.

That leafy repast formed the centerpiece of a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Fifth Street Farm Project, where city officials and urban farm advocates praised the project and challenged those present to envision a broad future for urban farming in schools citywide.

A loosely-organized group of parents, teachers, and friends first conceived the Fifth Street Farm Project in 2007. Group members sought to address childhood health and climate concerns. They also aimed to bring a hands-on education to the mix of elementary and middle-school students of the three schools—P.S. 64, the Earth School, and Tompkins Square Middle School—that share the building.

The next year, 2008, the project teamed up with architect and student parent Michael Arad. Arad’s initial cost-efficient plan had the rooftop farm contained in wading pools. The group found this proposal to be too elementary to do a good job of teaching students about farming, and Arad went back to the drawing board. His next plan involved prefabricated planters. That proposal did not receive approval or funding from the School Construction Authority, which viewed it as strategically unsound because it would have imposed too much weight on the building’s roof.

Arad’s final plan, which he intends to be “a model other schools can emulate and learn from,” employs roof dunnage—steel beams typically used to install heavy mechanical equipment on roofs not built to support such weight. The dunnage beams span the distances among the building’s load-bearing columns, providing a stable grid to underpin a deck for the farm. The $1.1 million, 2,400-square-foot project occupies roughly half of the building’s roof and features three long rows of planter boxes, some already filled with leafy greens.

At the ceremony, students enthusiastically explained the concepts of solar energy and composting to the crowd. On hand were Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and State Senator Daniel Squadron, (whose 25th district includes the East Village, the Lower East Side, and parts of Brooklyn), who both helped secure funding for the project.

Student parent Douglas Fountain, who has been involved in the project from day one, gestured to the other, not-yet-planted half of the roof. “We’re ready to go again,” he said.