A Conversation With Mary Ostafi, Founder of Urban Harvest STL

When Chicago native Mary Ostafi first became aware of the rampant animal cruelty in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations back when she was a teenager, she immediately became a vegetarian, joined PETA, and professed the moral paucity of eating meat. “I quickly learned that was not the right way to go about it,” she says, laughing.

Ostafi originally moved to St. Louis with her husband in 2011, settling Downtown so they could walk to work. Ostafi then began investigating how she could grow her own food. Soon after a successful neighborhood meeting, with about 50 attendees who expressed interest in developing a local community farm, Ostafi formed the nonprofit organization Urban Harvest STL. “‘After that first community meeting we had about starting a community farm is when I thought, ‘Ok—there’s something here,’” she says. Urban Harvest STL now has six urban farm sites, including a rooftop farm Downtown. We spoke with Ostafi to discuss how she developed the organization, the importance of delivering healthy food to communities of need and more.

Take me through your background, and how you became interested in urban farming.
I started my career in interior architecture and worked for a large firm in Madison, Wisconsin, which also happens to be where I met Joe, my husband. We came to St. Louis to work at the architecture firm HOK and moved to Downtown St. Louis because I wanted to be able to walk to work. While in school studying architecture—which was before the green rating system, LEED, was prominent—sustainability wasn’t really a focus. Still, I was always interested in green design. I wanted to learn about sustainability in the context of community and urban planning, and to come at it from a broader place; not just through the lens of architecture. I ended up in Sweden for a graduate degree because at the time, I couldn’t find a sustainability degree program in the United States. Really, it was the only program I could find in the world, and it was an incredible experience.

It was an international program, so I studied with about 50 other students from around 20 different countries all over the world. It was also a really diverse group: there were people of all ages and backgrounds, some fresh out of college and others with decades of successful careers. We learned the science of climate change while being trained in leadership, working on real projects that served clients around the world. I completed my thesis project with the Dublin City Council by creating a city sustainability plan.

urban farm community supported agriculture st louis rooftop farm urban harvest stl alive magazine

Photo courtesy of Kayla Hatcher.

The term “green lifestyle” has become saddled with perceived pretension in recent years, particularly with sketch comedy skits on shows like “Portlandia” and “Saturday Night Live.” What do you make of that perception?
At this point, I really don’t care [laughs]. Honestly. I don’t care if people judge me for having a green lifestyle. I’ve come to understand that that’s their problem, not mine. But I do feel it has become a lot more normal than it used to be. I don’t feel strange bringing my own bags to the grocery store; people don’t look at me like I’m crazy anymore, it’s commonplace, and that’s progress. I just keep moving forward. If people don’t get it, hopefully they’ll ask. But I don’t have space for negativity in my life.

Well-put. Though it seems like everywhere we turn these days, you’ll find negativity. How do you process and avoid it?
I process by focusing on our work and doing what I know is good for our community—that’s where I focus my time and energy, and I see the impact it has on the community. I also deleted Facebook from my phone and limit my time on social media.

How did the vision for the rooftop garden come about, and how did you realize it?
As I began talking with everyone who came to that first neighborhood meeting, it became clear that we all had a much larger vision than just a community garden. That night I knew we were going to do something more, even though I didn’t know exactly what it was yet. We formed the nonprofit Urban Harvest STL, and for the first three years it was very much grassroots and volunteer-based. We developed the community garden Downtown just north of Delmar, and the surrounding community wanted the food we were growing. Not all of them necessarily had the time or capacity to help us out on the farm, but there was a strong interest in healthy, local food.

That’s when we decided to scale up and start an urban farm, which cumulated into the FOOD ROOF Farm. It’s on top of the Wave Self Storage building Downtown, about a block from the City Museum. In urban areas, where land is hard to come by, rooftops present limitless possibilities. Now we have six urban farm sites, as well as five full-time staff, five work-study students, 15 interns and hundreds of volunteers. I would have never thought this is where we would be so quickly. I just followed the path ahead and listened to the need.

The process of developing a farm in an urban setting on top of a roof, no less, must have been a daunting process. How did you approach and develop it?
Actually, putting a farm on a roof didn’t seem quite as daunting to me because of my architecture background. I know buildings, and it was essentially a building project. But for the rest of it, I reached out to the pioneers of rooftop farming in Chicago and Brooklyn and made the trip out to visit their farms. I learned so much from them; they shared their struggles and successes and gave me the knowledge necessary to develop a successful rooftop farm in St. Louis. We did some research, found a building and decided to go for it.

I read that it took a full year to negotiate the lease for the rooftop farm. Is that true?
Yes, it is. The FOOD ROOF Farm is located on top of the Wave Self Storage facility at Delmar and 14th Street. I had a connection to the building owner and asked if I could see the rooftop. I knew right away that it would be perfect for a farm. So next, I asked if I could grow a farm on his roof [laughs], and he was open to the idea. But there were so many different elements to talk through and discuss, even just things like what the rent would look like. Property values in cities like Chicago and New York, where I was getting most of my information, are so different than St. Louis, so that was something to figure out. We also had to talk through whether or not we’d have 24-hour access, water and electricity availability, replacing the roof membrane, installing a railing so it would be up to building code.

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Photo courtesy of Kayla Hatcher.

From listening to you share about the project, it’s clear there’s a social justice piece to the work you’re doing as well. Can you elaborate on that?
That was definitely part of the original vision, which came from the people who formed the first community garden. We all recognized the need for healthy food in our community that was accessible to everyone. From the very beginning, we gathered food from our community garden and donated it to St. Patrick Center, an organization Downtown that provides resources for people struggling with homelessness. Good, healthy food should not just be for the people who can afford to go to Whole Foods or the farmer’s market. We all have the right to healthy food. There’s no reason we shouldn’t have an equitable food system, and I felt like we could do something about it.

For clarification, the food you grow is not available for the public to purchase, correct?
That’s correct. Most of the food we grow is donated to community organizations who then distribute it to people in St. Louis who don’t have access to nutrient-dense, healthy food where they live. One of our biggest partners is St. Louis Metro Market, which is actually a grocery store bus that brings healthy food to underserved neighborhoods of St. Louis, like Dellwood and JeffVanderLou. The rest goes to our farmers, interns and FOOD ROOF events, which help us bring in revenue to support our work.

What are a few of the most important things people can do to live a healthy, sustainable lifestyle?
Number one, eat more plants and less meat. And if you have the opportunity to grow your own food, definitely give it a try—even if it’s at a very small scale. Watching the life cycle of a plant grow from a seedling gives people a real appreciation for eating vegetables. Not everyone has the time or space to do that, so for food purchasing, we always recommend the Tower Grove Farmers Market or joining a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) for a constant stream of healthy food. You could also join a community garden. There are many in St. Louis, so there’s likely one close to where you live.

All images—aside from cover image—courtesy of Urban Harvest STL.

Cover image photo courtesy of Kyle Ramey.

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