Boston Medical Center (BMC) has transformed the once barren roof on top of its power plant building into the largest rooftop farm in that city. This past summer, the 7,000 square feet of growing space flourished with fresh produce, including arugula, bok choy, radishes, Swiss chard, and kale. The rooftop space produced approximately 15,000 pounds of food this growing season, most of which went directly to the hospital’s patients.
Close to 1,800 pounds of crops were harvested from the rooftop farm in June 2017. BMC’s Preventive Food Pantry received more than 960 pounds of the first yield, and the hospital’s kitchens received 830 pounds, ensuring the food is widely distributed to cafeterias across campus and that it is used in patients’ meals. Programs through BMC’s Demonstration Kitchen have also given the BMC community opportunities to visit the rooftop farm and learn about cooking with fresh, seasonal ingredients. Later-season crops such as tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, summer squash, and peppers were ready for harvest in July.
“The goal with our rooftop farm is to provide fresh, local produce to as many of our patients, employees, and community members as possible,” said David Maffeo, BMC’s senior director of support services. “This initiative supports our mission to address social determinants of health by improving access to healthy fruits and vegetables, and it is a perfect example of BMC’s dedication to sustainability and green efforts.”
The brainchild of Maffeo and Robert Biggio, senior vice president of facilities and support services, with the support of BMC’s Office of Development, the rooftop farm project was a year and a half in the making. Maffeo worked with Lindsay Allen and John Stoddard of Higher Ground Farm to find a rooftop and growing system that would work best for BMC’s needs. The farm was designed and installed by Somerville, MA-based, Recover Green Roofs, and Higher Ground Farm is managing the growing.
Allen, who is serving as BMC’s first farm manager, also completed a light study of the roof to determine the feasibility of growing crops in the space. “I think one of the other important ‘harvests’ from the farm is the knowledge exchange that will happen around health and local food in relationship to the farm,” said Allen. “We are what we eat, so the more people we can provide healthy, nutrient dense food to, the healthier our communities will be.”
According to Stoddard, founder of Higher Ground Farm, rooftop farms function similarly to ground level farms and generally can accommodate the same crops as other farms. The main constraints on a rooftop are soil depth, wind, and access.
Two urban beehives, painted by pediatric patients at BMC, were installed on the rooftop in early June. Tours, volunteer opportunities for employees, and programs through the Demonstration Kitchen for patients have allowed dozens of other individuals to get hands-on experience on the farm.
Additionally, the rooftop farm reduces BMC’s carbon footprint by increasing green space, adding carbon-breathing plants, and reducing the building’s energy use. The farm absorbs and slows the flow of rainwater, which helps address the issue of “combined sewer overflows,” a common urban problem where stormwater combines with sewage in periods of high rainfall and pollutes waterways. And, by producing food on-site, BMC is decreasing the energy required to transport food.
The rooftop farm is one of numerous sustainability initiatives at BMC. As part of a clinical campus redesign, BMC is cutting emissions by 50%, and in Fall 2016, the hospital announced a solar power purchase agreement with MIT and the Post Office Square Redevelopment Corporation. The solar purchase is equivalent to 100% of BMC’s projected electricity consumption, putting BMC on pace to become the first carbon-neutral hospital in New England upon completion of the campus redesign in 2018.