Video by Jon Alexander
When Mary Ostafi moved from the suburbs of Chicagoland to Downtown St. Louis, the architect-turned-farmer found herself surrounded by asphalt—so she looked up. She is now the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Urban Harvest STL and creative catalyst for Food Roof, St. Louis’ first rooftop farm in the heart of Downtown.
Standing on the roof of a U-Haul warehouse carpeted in sunlit greenery swirling with finches and monarch butterflies, Ostafi points to landmarks in the Downtown cityscape. City Museum is just across the street with its signature giant praying mantis and 10-story slide. On the other side of the roof is St. Patrick’s Center, which Food Roof supplies with fresh produce on the weekdays to feed those experiencing homelessness.
“This is my neighborhood, so this is kind of like my backyard,” Ostafi remarks about living Downtown. “It’s just so convenient for everything. I like the neighborhoods, I like the people. It’s really about the people. I like it during the summer time, when there’s tons of stuff going on, when it’s conference time and there’s tons of tourists… I like the buzz. And I just didn’t want my life to revolve around a car. You know how it is, drive, drive, drive…”
Ostafi’s desire to stay rooted in her local community is what drives Urban Harvest STL’s vision for a Food Access Cluster that creates local food systems in food deserts. Food Roof is a part of the St. Louis Food Policy Coalition, along with partners such as HOSCO Foods, Good Life Growing, Earthdance and International Institute who are working to create a network map of food systems in North St. Louis. Every Saturday, Food Roof supplies fresh food to St. Louis Metro Market and The Fit and Food Connection. Ostafi observes that people who shop for food at the St. Louis Metro Market love getting fresh produce from a Metrobus parked mere blocks from where their food is grown and harvested.
As Urban Harvest STL sets its sights on new potential food roofs in other parts of the city, Ostafi comments that there is no shortage of ways for people to get involved in their communities through urban farming. “Urban farming is really burgeoning in St. Louis,” says Ostafi. “And all cities across the country and even the world. It’s becoming a lot more commonplace for people to grow food where they live, to grow food in cities. Rooftop farming is just one form of that.”
Downtown residents grow their own food and build community with Food Roof’s pay-what-you-can model of community gardening. This model is consistent with the origins of the urban farming movement, which resilient community members built from the ashes of apartment buildings and houses torched by landlords and developers in the wake of postwar manufacturing decline, suburbanization and white flight. Though some might consider urban farming a new phenomenon, entitling it “agrarian urbanism” or “new new urbanism,” it hearkens back to old practices of growing food in cities occurring in prehistoric Europe and the Near East.
Mitchell Pearson, founder of the Earth School in Spanish Lake, an emerging farm-to-market project which teaches urban dwellers how to co-exist with Mother Nature, agrees with Ostafi’s assessment of the region’s urban farming movement. He is designing a program to train educators to teach children ages six to 12 years old about the practical science of gardening and nutrition, as well as how to deal with soil, insects, plants, seedlings and climate.
“St. Louis is on the curve or ahead of the curve in many ways,” Pearson explains. “We have Gateway Greening, urban farms in Ferguson, Tillie’s Corner, just to name a few… You can incorporate more of a community effort into smaller farms. Bring that block or two together to have some common things to work together on.”
When asked how people should get involved, Ostafi exclaims with a laugh, “Come and get involved! If it’s not on our farm, it’s maybe on another farm. There’s so many opportunities.”