Much of the food that we eat travels across long distances before it gets to our plate. The distancing of consumer from producer has environmental, social and economic consequences and will continue to be an issue since earth’s population is now more urban than rural. Not only does food travel from coast to coast, but it also travels across borders. According to data from the USDA, in 2007 the United States imported 3.2 million metric tons of vegetables and 1.8 million metric tons of fruits from Mexico. In 2008, the United States imported about $10 billion more in food, feed and beverages than it exported and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspectors were only able to physically examine 1.3 percent of these imports.
The food miles associated with imports presents an environmental concern and the differences in pesticide usage and health regulations abroad, not to mention the threat of agro-terrorism, presents an alarming safety concern. Safety considerations and the recognition of environmental degradation through the relocation of resources to serve urban populations have recently inspired innovative farming schemes. Rooftop farming in urban centers is part of the growing urban agricultural movement and provides a host of social and environmental benefits including beautifying the city, producing food for inhabitants, reducing building energy costs, cooling the urban island and filtering storm water.
Though the concept of a green roof might date back to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the modern green roof and rooftop-farming concept is just beginning to take root. Rooftop gardens are popping up in cities around the country. Some efforts are community-based, whereas restaurant owners are undertaking projects because they are interested in serving food on their menus that they themselves grow. Restaurants such as Frontera Grill and Uncommon Ground in Chicago were among the pioneers of rooftop gardening. At Frontera Grill, Chef Rick Bayless uses tomatoes grown on the top of his restaurant to make his famous “Rooftop Salsa”. He believes the great taste comes from the concentrated heat on top of the building, which helps his tomatoes ripen.
In addition to the social, environmental and health benefits, there might be an attractive business opportunity lurking and entrepreneurs are getting in on the action. An article recently published in Milwaukee’s Journal Sentinel describes the potential of this growing industry, as seen through the eyes of Erik Lindberg, a resident of the city who owns a remodeling business. A year ago Lindberg decided to build a rooftop garden and became an example of how even urban dwellers can grow their own food or buy locally grown produce. He currently sells the vegetables he grows to subscribers and a nearby natural store and in the process has become one of the city’s first commercial rooftop farmers. He wonders if it is possible to develop a business plan out of his ideas and efforts.
Lindberg has inspired the owners of Future Green to add a rooftop garden to their eco-store. Future Green’s owner, Lisa Sim, wants to show others that the plentiful flat roofs all over the city can be put to good use and hopes to get other businesses and residents excited about the idea. Interested business owners and residents are now getting financial support to cover their rooftop garden construction costs through state incentive programs, like Seattle’s impervious surface reduction credit that lists green roofs and roof gardens as acceptable strategies. The trend will continue to get government support if Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) has anything to say about it. She has introduced the Clean Energy Stimulus and Investment Assurance Act of 2009, which provides financial incentives for commercial and residential green roof installation.