There are lots of pigeons on the 4,000-square-foot roof of the Metro Baptist Church in Hell’s Kitchen. On its own, that’s not particularly surprising, but what is unexpected is that those birds are there with the intent of feasting on swiss chard. Even more unusual is that the leafy greens are growing in converted kiddie pools. To quote a venerable society columnist, “Only in New York, kids.”
Pigeons are a particular nuisance to swiss chard at the Hell’s Kitchen Farm Project, which is the collective name for the 52 kiddie pools on the roof of the church at West 40th Street. It’s a collaboration between the church, the food pantry, Clinton Housing Development Company and Metropolitan Community Church of New York. Each organization contributed resources with the intent of creating a community space that would educate and provide fresh produce to the neighborhood.
Farm coordinator Lauren Baccus said that the pigeons wrecked havoc on the plants last year, when they would dive bomb to munch on the leaves. It’s hard to blame the birds for being drawn to chard’s grassy flavor and high amounts of vitamins A, C, and K. This year, however, the creatures were thwarted after the farm’s workers installed fences and netting over the plants.
“The kiddie pool idea was very much in the tradition of our work: it was the most we could do with the limited resources we had,” Sherouse said. “And it seemed like the perfect fit given our weight constraints and our budget constraints.”
Nonetheless, there were still logistical hurdles. For instance, getting 7 metric tons of soil and materials up five flights of stairs onto the roof was also no small feat. The endeavor took place last summer and involved a fleet of volunteers who created bucket brigades and pulley systems up the front and back staircases of Metro Baptist Church. In addition to swiss chard, Hell’s Kitchen Farm Project also grows peas, zucchini, blueberries, tiny carrots, and more.
Baccus, who also works for the Clinton Housing Development Company, says this year’s chard harvest was particularly robust.
“It was first planted in the beginning of April actually, when we first had our big volunteer push,” she said. “Throughout the summer, we were able to harvest and actually got 65 pounds of swiss chard this year, and that exceeds the total harvest from last year.”
(Photo, left to right: Lauren Baccus, Halloween-ready Amy Eddings, and Alan Sherouse/Joy Y. Wang)
The continuous harvest was good news for Rauschenbush Metro Ministries, which is the food pantry run by Metro Baptist Church. “Everything that’s grown [on the roof] goes to the food pantry every Saturday in the same building,” explained Baccus.
Metro Baptist Church’s pastor Alan Sherouse said that the number of people served by the food pantry continues to grow. “We’ve seen an increase from around 400 people a month served, in terms of all those within particular families, to now over 600 within just the last few months,” he said. “And that represents some steady increase even over the last couple of years.”
Baccus hopes to draw neighborhood crowds again soon with Hell’s Kitchen Farm Project’s fall harvest celebration and benefit on November 13.
The event, as well as others on the roof, may help those in the area learn more about growing and eating fresh produce. Sherouse volunteered himself as evidence of the farm’s educational potential. “In me you have encountered someone who is not so familiar with [chard],” he confessed. “And I think in some ways, I’m an example of what happens when someone who has a pretty steady, at times unhealthy, at times meat and potatoes, kind of diet has that interrupted by the opportunities that a farm or a CSA provide.”
Baccus was initially drawn to the vibrant colors of rainbow chard and soon discovered that that it is also delicious. She offered her recipe for black bean chili with butternut squash and swiss chard as one way of enjoying it.
Black Bean Chili With Butternut Squash and Swiss Chard
"Perfect for fall, one of those meals made up of kitchen staples, remixed." —Lauren Baccus
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 1/2 cups chopped onions
- 3 garlic cloves, chopped
- 2 1/2 cups butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
- 2 tablespoons chili powder
- 1 -2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 3 (15 ounce) cans black beans, rinsed and drained
- 2 1/2 cups vegetable broth
- 1 (14 1/2 ounce) can diced tomatoes with juice
- 3 cups coarsely chopped swiss chard leaves
Heat oil in heavy large pot over medium-high heat. Add onions and garlic; saute until tender and golden, about 9 minutes.
Add squash; stir 2 minutes. Stir in chili powder, cinnamon, and cumin. Stir in beans, broth, and tomatoes with juices. Bring to boil.
Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until squash is tender, about 15 minutes.
Stir in chard; simmer until chard is tender but still bright green, about 4 minutes longer.
Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Ladle chili into bowls and serve. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro or red onion if desired.