Growing Community

Mike Zimmerman '12 in Catholic New York, August 19, 2010

Media Source

Rooftop garden, tended by Fordham Law students, stocks Manhattan parish soup kitchen


Did you hear the one about the lawyer who decides to become a farmer? Actually, this story is more about community, interfaith fellowship and the burgeoning "farm to table" sustainable agriculture movement, though it does involve a bunch of lawyers, or in this case prospective lawyers. And yes, they are also nascent farmers, and that is no joke.

It all takes place on the rooftop of the parish center at St. Paul the Apostle Church on Manhattan's West Side where a small organic garden is currently sprouting an assortment of homegrown organic vegetables and herbs for the church's "Loaves and Fishes" soup kitchen. The originator of the roof garden idea is a second-year Fordham law student, Mike Zimmerman, and most of the gardeners are fellow Fordham law students, a seemingly unlikely juxtaposition. Until you talk to Zimmerman.

"At the risk of making a pun, the idea for the roof garden came about organically," he explained. "I grew up in Essex, Vermont...I didn't live on a farm, but plenty of my friends did, and I always took being surrounded by living things as a matter of course. So coming to New York City was difficult for me, not just because of the lack of green spaces but also in the isolation of its residents."

Zimmerman decided that one way to break down the social isolation of city life was to become active on campus. He organized a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm program called "Farm to Fordham" to give students the opportunity to work with community activists and independent farmers to promote environmentally sound, farmer-to-consumer local agriculture. "People assumed I was a farmer and started asking me about other sustainable food things that were happening in the city. I didn't know much, so after a Fordham staff member, Katherine Chen, mentioned urban gardening to me, I decided that we might make something happen ourselves."

But where? As Zimmerman had noticed, there isn't much green space on the upper West Side, and what there is isn't likely to be turned over for a vegetable garden. But there is a little-known fact about Manhattan: it is home to many flourishing roof gardens, some quite lush.

Zimmerman, who is Jewish, had also been volunteering at St. Paul the Apostle's soup kitchen. One day he brought up his idea for an urban garden to St. Paul's pastor, Father Gil Martinez, C.S.P., who offered the parish center roof, adjacent to the church, as a possible site.

"Mike asked where we got our vegetables from and I said we got them donated from Whole Foods," Father Martinez recalled. "Mike said, 'Well, I have an idea.' He organized it all. He got everything donated and it's been great, really amazing."

Harder Services Inc. donated more than 1,500 pounds of premium, organic soil. Some seeds were obtained from, and the East Side Tabernacle, a non-denominational church on East Second Street, donated the rest. The students started building the planter boxes from discarded warehouse pallets in the church basement last Thanksgiving and their first harvest was in mid-July.

"We got good seeds and good soil, and we've had good sun. That's all you need, I guess," said Eric Axelrad, 27, one of Fordham's neophyte farmers.

But Father Martinez initially had his doubts. The pastor, who grew up in a family of itinerant farm workers in California, had picked a lot of tomatoes in his youth. He knew farming, and these young people didn't look like farmers.

"I remember when Michael brought the first group of about seven or eight over. I asked them, 'Who has gardening experience?' Mike didn't have any. I think one of the women said she'd seen a garden or something once," said Father Martinez, with a laugh. "I was a little concerned at that point. The advice that I did offer was that if you are going to do this, you have to be dedicated. The plants have to be watered every day...But they've been very faithful."

Zimmerman and his friends knew they were greenhorns. Fortunately, they were able to call on some folks who did know about gardening. One was Sal Dungca, a St. Paul's parishioner who knew Zimmerman from volunteering at the soup kitchen.

"When Mike mentioned the rooftop garden to me, I thought, this is great, because I'm a gardener. We used to have a house in Queens full of plants. I was called the bamboo king of Jackson Heights," he said. "We had a lot of fun, even building the plant containers."

Another was Alana Tenzer, a 22-year-old ecologist with a bachelor's degree in environmental science from the University of Maryland studying sacred Scripture at Yeshivat Hadar on the West Side.

"I have a roommate in Fordham Law and she told me, 'There's this person, Mike Zimmerman, and he wants to start a garden but he doesn't really know anything about gardening, can you help him?' " she recalled. "Having just moved to the city, I thought, I'd love to meet people who love gardening and share my experience with them. What's really amazing is how church members have gotten involved. Some people come with their families right after church to water. It's turned into a community garden."

If the philosophy behind "farm to table" is keeping it local, it doesn't come more local. The "farm" is just an elevator ride from the kitchen.

"The idea is to get people to eat local, organic food. And what better way to do it than to grow it right on the roof of the church? Next year we hope to expand so we can fulfill all the soup kitchen's needs," Axelrad said.