FOAM Visionaries: Annie Novak of Growing Chefs

Whether they're game-changing entrepreneurs or inventing a new way to give back, the we got the chance to chat with eight people putting the rest of us to shame. Here, the FOAM Visionaries, as interviewed by their mentors and collaborators.

Role Model // Zinzi Edmundson // 05/14/12
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Annie Novak of Growing Chefs
Alessandra Olanow
Annie Novak of Growing Chefs

In 2005, Annie Novak started her non-profit, Growing Chefs: Education from Food to Fork. Ever since, through her work in education as well as spearheading the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, she has been changing the topography of New York City once terrace garden at a time. Here, she sits down with one of her biggest inspirations, NYU professor and Food Politics author Marion Nestle.

MARION: We met over a just-gathered dinner while watching the sun set over the Manhattan skyline. I could see then why you were such an inspiration to aspiring urban pioneers. Do you have a farming background? How did you get into urban agriculture?
Breaking bread (or sharing salad) with neighbors and mentors is my favorite part of farming. Sharing a meal after days of hard work
is the most satisfying kind of delicious. I learned that when i first started working in agriculture, while doing my undergraduate
work in West Africa with chocolate tree farmers. You can’t enter a home in Ghana without being offered something to eat or drink—it was the highest offense to my “Auntie” if a guest came to visit us and I didn’t give someone a glass of water first thing.

But how did you get from that to this particular rooftop farm?
I had garnered a reputation around town as an overly enthusiastic green thumb—I worked at the New York Botanical garden, city greenmarkets and ran my non-profit, Growing Chefs—so, I was tapped by a green roof company, Goode Green, to start a rooftop farm concept for a soundstage in Greenpoint. it’s funny, my first impulse was a curious skepticism, but four growing seasons later, the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm has inspired countless other urban farm projects, and is still growing strong.

I've got a terrace where I grow tomatoes and salad greens in the summer. What else would you recommend for terrace pots?
With Growing Chefs, our mission is to encourage everyone to try their hand at gardening. Fresh food is so much tastier, and growing your own is the most effective way to feel connected to all the hard work that goes into feeding us all every day. For you, Marion, as busy as you are and as hot and sunny as your balcony probably gets while you’re out saving the world, I’d recommend a low-maintenance culinary herb garden. I’m a big fan of growing the food you can’t find in a grocery store; even if you’re going to do a planter box of basil, sage, oregano and thyme, make it a genovese basil like Aton, a pretty variegated sage with blonde-dusted leaves, or a lemon thyme.

Ok, let's talk about some economics, can you make a living this way?
Over the past century, our country has been slowly and deliberately devaluing the role of the farmer. We’ve become a country that prioritizes lawns and concrete over loam and clay; cheap foods and disposable goods over longevity in health, real calories, and a long-term investment in the land and people that nourish us. A farmer could make a good living in the Northeast if there was a market and distribution system
to support us. We have a perfect rain cycle most years, a long enough warm season to raise almost every nutritious, necessary food crop, and our winter frost cycle kills nearly all fungal disease. You could argue I’m on a rooftop because the ground level space in new york city is seen as more valuable as a condominium than as a source of high-nutrient food production.

What's your goal for the farm? Is this something you want to clone?
Chicago, Portland and Toronto set enormous civic precedent in supporting green roof installations. Despite being a world leader in most things, New York City has no permanent sanctions for community gardens and no municipal compost system. Not only should there be more rooftop farms in New York City, there should be more green spaces, period. Every new condo in North Brooklyn should have a green roof.

If other people want to do something like this, how can they get started?
Take time to start a small garden on the side. Buy in season from local growers and self-educate.

Read more inspiring stories from FOAM Visionaries, like Keep A Breast founder Shaney Jo Darden, in Role Model!

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Originally published in June/July 2012

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