Rooftop Farmers Are Feeding Hungry New Yorkers During The Pandemic

Urban gardens and community fridges are just a few of the ways activists are distributing food—and they need all the help they can get.
September 1, 2020, 1:00pm
Rooftop Farmers Are Feeding Hungry New Yorkers During The Pandemic
Photo: Hell's Kitchen Farm Project

The flat concrete roof of Metro Baptist Church offers a 360-degree view of the surrounding Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan—from sturdy brick apartment buildings to new glittering high-rises and the adjacent Port Authority Bus Terminal. But perhaps the most striking sight of all is on the roof itself: dozens of plastic kiddie pools cover the rooftop, each one filled with soil and overflowing with fresh produce. 

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This is the Hell’s Kitchen Farm Project, a community agriculture initiative founded 10 years ago this summer to bring fresh, affordable food to its surrounding neighborhood. Now, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization has expanded its services despite an absence of volunteers due to social distancing measures.

“We've been struggling with the lack of physical and financial volunteer support on the farm, but have done our best to stick to our growing schedule,” Mark Prehn, the organization’s Food Justice Coordinator, told Motherboard. “Where we would normally see between 60 and 80 people on a given Saturday, we are now seeing between 120 and 150.” 

The Hell’s Kitchen Farm Project is only one of countless community-based food assistance programs experiencing financial and logistical hardships. With unemployment soaring and government aid stagnating, food pantries and community gardens across the country are experiencing skyrocketing demand just as the pandemic stymies the volunteer programs and regular donations on which they often rely. 

To meet these challenges, activists have been exploring alternative methods of distributing food to those in need. Community fridges are one prominent example: these free food dropoff and pickup locations require no permanent staff members to operate, and can be set up anywhere with a reliable electrical outlet. 

New York City’s first community fridge was set up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn before the pandemic had even begun by community activist Thadeaus Umpster. The idea caught on quickly, and as of late July there were around 15 free food fridges in NYC, with the number steadily growing. Similar community fridge networks have sprung up in LA, Houston, Nashville, Milwaukee, and elsewhere. 

These outdoor spots are unmonitored and accessible 24/7, allowing clients and donors alike to comply with current social distancing measures. Visitors to the fridges note that these qualities also reduce the stigma around accepting free food, and foster a greater sense of trust within their communities. 

In the absence of substantial government assistance, folks in New York City and beyond are likely to increasingly rely on grassroots mutual aid programs to help feed their families. Resources like free fridges and grocery delivery services that provide food to elderly and immune-compromised residents show how communities are stepping up to support their most vulnerable members.

“We all hope that this crisis will ultimately motivate our society to rethink how food is distributed, and the connections between community, food production, and wealth disparity,” said Prehn. “While the health and safety of our neighbors is always our top priority, we know that the financial impact that this crisis will have on our community, and the increased need for food assistance, will continue on well past the imminent health risk posed by the virus.”