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Church’s rooftop garden inspires city youth

Jocelyn Herrera (left foreground) and Jose Jimenez harvest a cabbage
from the rooftop garden at Glide Memorial United Methodist
Church in San Francisco. UMNS photos by Kim Griffis.

By Kim Griffis*
Sept. 3, 2009 | SAN FRANCISCO (UMNS)

Look around San Francisco’s Tenderloin District and there’s hardly a tree or plant to be found. It is a concrete jungle of sidewalks, streets and buildings.

But high above the sidewalks and streets sits a growing oasis of green.

The organic garden teaches
healthy eating habits.

The roof of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church is alive with cabbage, cucumbers, and curious young students thanks to an organic, edible rooftop garden that sprouted up last year.

“It's amazing that it can exist in this part of San Francisco, especially in this neighborhood,” says Maya Donelson, 25, who manages the church’s garden project. “A lot of people here are low income, and this provides them a way they can actually learn how to grow their own food.”

The Graze the Roof project grew out of Glide’s partnership with the Oakland nonprofit Bay Localize, which promotes edible rooftops. As an intern at Bay Localize, Donelson applied for a $10,000 grant to fund a new rooftop project. She got the grant at the same time Glide was planning ways to bring environmentally sound policies to the low-income and homeless population the church serves,

“Our mission is to help people break the cycles of poverty and empower themselves,” says Janice Mirikitani, with Glide Foundation. “For many reasons, poor people are left out and marginalized from any healthy living because they can’t afford it. They aren’t given access.”

Appreciating veggies

Most of the Tenderloin District’s kids don’t have much access to fresh, nutritious produce. But since Glide’s garden was planted in the summer of 2008, it has grown into a living classroom and popular snack bar for neighborhood children.

“We’re collecting tomatoes!” exclaims a smiling 6-year-old, as she drops a red globe into a basket.

Maya Donelson (center)
manages the project.


Nearby, other children pull radishes, pick basil leaves and harvest a heavy head of cabbage. Donelson uses the hands-on harvesting time to teach them basic gardening skills, as well as an appreciation for vegetables and herbs some of them had never seen.

A local chef, Rebecca Alonzi, teaches children how to incorporate the produce into their diet. One summer morning, kindergarteners use freshly picked basil and cabbage to make cabbage pesto.

While most kids might turn up their nose at the light green, gritty concoction, those who have spent a season growing the ingredients, and a morning making it into a tasty treat, cannot seem to get enough.

“It tastes good,” says Jose Jimenez, after trying a slice of French bread smeared with the pesto. “It tastes like it’s sweet.”

“It is just such a feeling of opening up their palates, opening up their world,” Alonzi says.

Mirikitani adds: “Well, it certainly beats Ding Dongs.”

A new creation

About 200 low-income or homeless children have participated in the Graze the Roof program. Getting children involved is a deliberate move on Glide’s part. Their excitement for eating nutritious foods and learning about environmental stewardship is spreading to their families and neighbors, planting the seeds for a healthier community.

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“It helps them to know also about creating,” says the Rev. Cecil Williams of Glide. “It has to be participation on their part, that they have done something that counts.”

The garden takes up less than half of the 4,500-square-foot rooftop, but it is attracting a lot of local attention. Community members help plant, grow and harvest food, as well as participate in free tours and classes to learn how to start their own urban gardens and prepare healthy meals and snacks from the harvest.

“This is a way for them to understand the process of how to grow their own food in an urban center,” Donelson says, “and to show them ways to incorporate the food that they’re growing, as almost a reward, into their diet.”

*Griffis is a freelance journalist living near Seattle.

News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.  

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