It may be the first juicy taste of a sun-ripened tomato, straight from the vine.
Or maybe it’s the feel of soft chicken feathers, as little hands get their first chance to pet this unexpectedly sweet and beautiful animal.
Perhaps it’s that first wondrous sight of the lush, blooming farm sprouting up from a rooftop in downtown St. Louis.
Just one of these small moments is enough to cause a look of wonder to spread across a child’s face as they tour the Food Roof Farm by Urban Harvest STL
, a 2017 Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund grantee.
Urban Harvest STL doesn’t just grow fresh, local food for those who need it. They also offer internship programs, tours and educational events that encourage and inspire others to take an interest in growing their own food.
“Our mission is to build community around inclusive and resilient local food systems,” said Mary Ostafi, executive director of Urban Harvest STL. “Basically, in simple terms, we grow food for people who need it most in our communities.”
The nonprofit started as a grassroots initiative in 2011.
community meeting brought together roughly 50 people interested in growing food in the downtown neighborhood.
Though those early organizers had much bigger dreams even from the beginning, they started small with a community garden downtown.
“We became a nonprofit right away, knowing that in the future we would scale up and take on these projects,” Ostafi said. “We started small with a community garden to test things out and get the support we needed. Then, we started working toward building a larger farm.”
In 2015, Urban Harvest STL started growing food on the leased space at their rooftop farm – or Food Roof Farm. The quarter-acre rooftop farm was the first of its kind in St. Louis.
“With the Food Roof Farm, we went from being a grassroots initiative to having a broader impact,” Ostafi said.
Since 2015, Urban Harvest STL has added four other urban farm sites in downtown and near North St. Louis.
Urban Harvest STL offers tours of the Food Roof Farm to school groups, in addition to the many different educational events they host throughout the year.
For many of those who visit, it is a rare opportunity to visit an urban farm in the heart of downtown St Louis. Some have never tasted vegetables fresh from the garden, or seen anything more exotic than a tomato.
“We’re growing over 250 varieties of plants on our rooftop, most of them are vegetables, but there’s also herbs, fruits and edible flowers,” Ostafi said. “We are experimenting with season extension, and we do have a greenhouse on the rooftop that we keep going through the winter. We have a much smaller operation through the winter but we’re still growing food year round.”
The nonprofit has two full-time staff, two AmeriCorp VISTA’s and 15 interns who volunteer their time in exchange for education. They also have hundreds of volunteers who help maintain the farms.
When the produce is ripe, interns pick the vegetables and herbs, and then pack them for distribution.
The majority of the food is then donated to their community partners who distribute it into nearby food deserts in St. Louis, Ostafi said.
From there, the partners – St. Louis MetroMarket and The Fit and Food Connection – make sure the fresh, local food gets to the people who don’t typically have access to healthy food in their communities.
St. Louis MetroMarket
is a converted city bus that serves as a full-service farmer’s market on wheels. They drive into in St. Louis city neighborhoods where there are no grocery stores and sell fresh food at a very low price.
The Fit and Food Connection
provides healthy living resources through free physical fitness and nutrition classes, food assistance, one-on-one sessions and educational seminars to low-income families throughout northern St. Louis city and county.
“Urban Harvest STL grows the food, provides education and teaches people how to grow their own food,” Ostafi said. “St. Louis MetroMarket loads it up right from our farm and drives it into a community and sells it as a subsidized price, while The Fit and Food Connection offers fitness, nutrition and cooking classes to these community members.”
The $20,000 grant from SOS supports this food access program, enabling Urban Harvest STL to grow and donate the food to their community partners, so that these nonprofits can collectively address food insecurity issues in St Louis.
“SOS’ support enables us to filter this healthy, organic local food through our community partners into the neighborhoods in the near North Side that are within blocks of our farm locations,” Ostafi said.
As rewarding as it is to see this local, fresh food being enjoyed by someone who needs it, it is sometimes even more powerful to see how growing the food can impact a life, Ostafi said.
In 2017, Urban Harvest STL started the Leadership in Urban Agriculture Internship Program to give students and adults the experience of learning how to grow food throughout the different farm sites.
“We’ll have about 30 people participate in this program in 2017,” Ostafi said. “They’ll get the experience of learning how to grow food at our various farm sites, and they’ll also have the experience of working with our partners at MetroMarket bus or The Fit and Food Connection. They’ll get to see the full impact of the food that’s being grown.”
The organization also hosts paid summer internships through St. Louis Youth Jobs.
“Some of these youth come from marginalized neighborhoods and they are looking for job training to prepare them for careers,” Ostafi said. “We currently have four teens and they’d never been on a farm before, period. When they first arrived at the Food Roof Farm Farm, their faces lit up in amazement. They’ve since told us how nice and comforting it is to be in that type of environment.”
The youth, while growing food in a vibrant, thriving environment unlike so the concrete, metal and glass of the city nearby, have become part of a community that will help them as they move forward.
“It could change the trajectory of their career or their life,” Ostafi said. “Even if we’re just impacting one person it makes a difference to us.”
Story by Bethany Prange of 618 Creative on behalf of Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund. Photos by Dallis Jackson.