Second-year Fordham University Law student Michael Zimmerman loves to get his hands dirty.
Each day Zimmerman and a handful of student volunteers tend to and harvest a small organic roof garden that he began on the top of the parish house at St. Paul the Apostle Church, next to the Lincoln Center campus.
The students then carry the harvested eggplants, cabbage, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and herbs down to the church’s soup kitchen, Loaves and Fishes, which serves the local community. Anything that the kitchen can’t use is given to the retired parish priests who live nearby.
“One of the principles of urban agriculture is not to waste what we’ve got,” says Zimmerman, who has an interest in environmental and agricultural law. “Cities have all this space and all this sunlight for growing so why not use it?”
The Essex, Vermont, native went through a bit of “culture shock” when he moved to New York City last year to attend Fordham Law School. Having been raised in an agricultural community, Zimmerman found the isolation and lack of green space in the city to be challenging.
To get involved, he immediately organized a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farmer share, where a group buys a share of a local farmer’s harvest and, in return, receives a weekly portion of the crop. The group is called Farm to Fordham.
“I was bringing a lot of great-looking vegetables in to the law school each week,” recalled Zimmerman. “And people assumed I’d grown them and that I knew gardening.”
Actually, Zimmerman didn’t. But he quickly found people who did, including Gilbert Martinez, CSP, the pastor at St. Paul the Apostle. Father Martinez, it turned out, came from a family of California farm workers and was a former National Park Ranger at the Grand Canyon. When Zimmerman approached him about starting an organic urban garden, he agreed to donate the growing space.
Once they had the space, the group of dedicated students built growing boxes from wooden pallets they pulled out of Fordham dumpsters, and got milk crates the same way. They received a donation of more than 1,500 pounds of soil from Fordham’s landscaping company, Harder Services, and seeds were donated from East Side Tabernacle and Seeds of Change.
They delivered their first crop earlier this summer.
“Since then it’s just run itself,” Zimmerman said, quickly reconsidering. “Well . . . that’s not exactly true!”
In fact, Zimmerman has assembled an ambitious team of volunteer students from both Lincoln Center and Rose Hill to help him tend to the garden. He has teamed up with Derek Denckla (LAW ’97), who recently won a cash prize in the Terrefarm “One Prize,” a Brooklyn-based competition for creating productive green space in cities. The two men have joined with a group of Graduate School of Business Administration (GBA) students to develop a free legal clinic and service for persons wanting to start urban agriculture businesses.
Zimmerman also hopes to also plant an organic garden space at the Amsterdam Public Houses next year, with the help of the community.
“The garden(s) make sense as a community integration project for me, and for Fordham and its students,” said Zimmerman. “Food always brings people together.”