"We build vegetable gardens on America's skyline."
This is the tagline that defines the mission of a team whose goal is a more sustainable future. They take the moniker urban garden seriously, utilizing the best of urban architecture and design to grow produce that benefits those who are most in need of fresh local food. They look at the rooftops of building and think, this is not just another section of square footage; this is a place that can be used to serve the city; they partner with businesses of all sizes to grow their mission beyond the scope of a few rooftops. We caught up with Executive Director Thomas Schneider to talk about his past in sustainability and his plans for the future of a business that breathes life into the urban spaces that are so commonly left as empty patches of concrete on the skyline.
Can you talk a little bit about what Rooftop Roots does? Rooftop Roots is a 501(c)3 urban agriculture organization that is working to advance environmental, social, and economic sustainability. Utilizing urban landscapes, we design, build, and maintain community, commercial, and residential vegetable gardens. In short, our gardens work to create jobs (economic), increase availability of fresh produce in low-income communities (social), and increase production of local, sustainably-grown fruits and vegetables (environmental).
What do you think has been the most rewarding part of being ED at Rooftop Roots?Gosh, hard to say, but seeing people light up when they tasted their own, fresh grown tomato or vegetable is certainly inspiring. It’s really powerful when you see people start to have that connection with food and the positive impact that locally grown food can have on people on so many different levels. It’s fascinating to see how each individual relates to agriculture and why they are interested in it.
What do you think has been the most surprising part of the company’s evolution?The most surprising part has been the actual evolution itself. When RTR was first envisioned, we targeted roof locations exclusively; however, as we gained more experience, we began to see the opportunities that other urban landscapes could provide. That really opened up new partnership opportunities and angles to make gardening more convenient and accessible for all communities.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how that has made you so invested in working with sustainability?Continuing on the evolution theme, my involvement in urban agriculture has evolved too. Growing up I always enjoyed being outdoors, which, while my parents aren’t traditional tree-huggers or anything, I think they encouraged. I studied wildlife biology in college, but I’ve always had a strong affinity for policy and my hometown too, so I ended up back here doing environmental emergency management work (i.e., oil spill response and preparedness policy). I’ll just say that Rooftop Roots is a natural progression of my experiences and wanting to advance more holistic models of environmental, economic, and social sustainability. I’d like to think producing food as locally as possible fits the criteria, but Rooftop Roots still has a lot of room for improvement.
How do you feel that your interest in being a part of a smaller local community of urban gardening has influenced your business practices?This is one of the most difficult considerations to balance, in my humble opinion. Ideally, I would like for RTR to be completely carbon neutral, being able to manage all of our food production without any outside inputs. We have a long ways to go, but I think this is an important goal to aspire to if we, as a society, want to try and create long-term economic models that manage natural resources sustainably. And part of managing natural resources sustainably is circulating money as locally as possible, which has important environmental, economic, and social benefits. But at the same time, do I have Amazon Prime, yeah, I’m guilty. But has Rooftop Roots also moved towards supporting more local businesses and soil amendments/carbon inputs? Most definitely. I guess the key is not to be too preachy about anything, just trying to create examples that people can incorporate into their everyday lives, while raising awareness about the importance and benefits of producing food locally.
What do you consider is the role of businesses like Rooftop Roots in changing the food industry?As alluded to earlier, if we can help identify business models that advance environmental, economic, and social sustainability, then that is a big win for us. On a more tangible level, we want to lower the barrier for entry into the gardening realm. We want to research and identify easy, affordable approaches to gardening that will allow all individuals to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, no matter where they live.
Are there any major changes in the process of urbanization that you believe will be taking place in the coming years?Not sure that I’m qualified to answer this one, but I hope we move towards more zoning and regulatory policies that encourage greater population density. Clearly affordable housing is an acute issue here in the National Capital Region, so supporting initiatives that create quality living conditions at all socio-economic levels, I believe, is imperative.
Also, while I’m certainly not an expert on this either, I think supply chains will evolve, due to market demands, that will be more supportive of regional economies. At least that’s a hope!
As the demand for sustainable food options continues to grow, especially in places like DC, what are some of your goals for Rooftop Roots in the near future?We want to make fresh, locally-grown produce available to all. We want to create a true triple-bottom line organization that uses urban agriculture as a vehicle to create jobs, grow ecologically sustainable produce in food deserts, and advance awareness, strategies, and practices for growing vegetables in urban environments…without being – dare I say - too douchey about it!