Rooftop Gardening, Community Service, & Social Justice: Reflections on Service Day 2017 @RooseveltU

By Diana Ramirez (BA ‘17)

Volunteers work in the WB Rooftop Garden (photo: D. Ramirez)

Last week, Roosevelt University held a Day of Service to conclude a week of panels and performances exploring contemporary issues of social justice for the second annual American Dream Reconsidered Conference. The Roosevelt community and general public were offered the opportunity to get involved with the WB Rooftop Garden on campus as one of several Service Day projects available for participation on Thursday, Sept. 14th.

Volunteers were free to work on a number of different gardening activities we had available, from weeding to seed sowing to harvesting, as well as participate in an informal discussion about how environmental justice and sustainability are essential elements of achieving social justice and dissolving societal disparities.

RU students & staff garden on RU Service Day (photo: D. Ramirez)

This discussion was intended to raise awareness of the many efforts undertaken on campus towards a more sustainable future, such as the waste services offered to achieve a 40% Waste Diversion rate, the plan with Retrofit Chicago to cut carbon emission through energy reduction, LEED building certification, and the use of low-flow plumbing to conserve water.

With a special focus on the Rooftop Garden, we learned about the importance of urban green space to function as a means of water absorption in order to minimize stormwater runoff, which is of particular importance in the city of Chicago where urbanization over many decades has overwhelmed the capacity of the city’s combined sewer system and thus degraded water quality in its rivers.

In addition to these environmental benefits, the Rooftop Garden provides fresh vegetables and herbs to the Dining Center which enhances the health and well-being of the Roosevelt community. With a source of onsite food production, the Dining Center is also cutting carbon emissions by eliminating the need for additional produce to be grown, harvested, packaged and transported to our Chicago campus.

Alumni rooftop reunion: Moses Viveros (BA ’17), Prof. Mike Bryson, Diana Ramirez (BA ’17), and Beeka Quesnell (BA ’15) — photo by SUST major Maria Cancilla

After about an hour of labor with soil and seeds, we invited our volunteers to conclude their service project shift with a snack prepared with ingredients that were harvested from the garden itself just two days prior! The Dining Center was gracious in preparing some delicious corn muffins with chive from the garden, as well as a beautiful salad of mixed greens comprised of kale, endive, and swiss chard from the gardens.

Our Garden Team also gave out reusable Roosevelt water bottles to volunteers in an effort to influence a simple step towards a greener future by ditching the plastic, disposable (and privatized) water bottles. This is just a small example of how one can take deliberate and cooperative action to enhance sustainability in our everyday lives.

Butterfly weed (photo: M. Bryson)

To take our sustainability efforts on campus even further, we initiated a very exciting project with the Rooftop Garden on Service Day! History was made at Roosevelt University as the first-ever Butterfly Weed seeds were sown to establish a rooftop pollinator garden/ restored prairie within the city’s downtown landscape.

The importance of Butterfly Weed, which is a type of milkweed with a shallower root system suited for a rooftop garden setting, is tremendous as the Monarch Butterfly population has decreased by 80% in the past 2 decades, and ⅔ of our food is provided by the services of pollinators, such as the monarch and honey bee.

By making more milkweed available in Chicago, which is within the monarch’s migratory path, we can actively work towards enhancing urban conservation and wildlife habitat, for the environment’s sake as well as our own sustainability and well-being. To learn more about how YOU can help with this effort, check out this info from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Diana Ramirez earned her BA in May 2017 at Roosevelt University in sociology and sustainability studies (with honors) and was an active member of the RU Green student environmental organization. This past summer, she worked with fellow SUST alum Moses Viveros as stewards of the WB Rooftop Garden at RU’s Chicago Campus, while also completing an environmental science research fellowship with the Urban Ecology Field Lab at the Field Museum in Chicago. 

Posted in activities, alumni, biodiversity, ecology, education, events, faculty, food, green design, Roosevelt, service, students | Leave a comment

This Week @RooseveltU: The American Dream Reconsidered Conference 2017

WhenWhere: Roosevelt University – 425 S. Wabash Ave, Chicago, IL 60605 | Ganz Hall, Room 745, Auditorium Building

Join the conversation about what it means to be an American in these challenging times.

Roosevelt University, founded on ideals of religious and racial freedom, invites you to take part in our conference on the meaning and future of the American Dream. Enjoy engaging panels and service activities open to the Roosevelt community and general public.

Attendance is free* and open to the public, but registration is requested.

*The Ruth Bader Ginsburg Keynote Event is being ticketed separately through the Auditorium Theatre. TICKETS ARE SOLD OUT.

Posted in activities, alumni, community, conferences, education, ethics, events, faculty, history, humanities, policy, presentations, Roosevelt, social justice, students

Return Your Solar Eclipse Glasses; Support Science Education Worldwide

Roosevelt students, faculty and staff — If you still have any solar eclipse glasses, please turn them in to Prof. Mike Bryson (mailstop: AUD 835 or office: AUD 829) or Prof. Norbert Cordeiro (WB 816).

Glasses will be donated to the Astronomers Without Borders and Explore Scientific, which will send them on to schools in South America and Asia for use when eclipses cross those continents in 2019.

For more information, please visit this link:

Posted in education, museums, recycling, Roosevelt, science

Crickets and Kale: WB Garden Summer Update

by Diana Ramirez and Moses Viveros

Diana Ramirez harvesting greens, August 2017 (photo: M. Viveros)

Despite the slow start at the beginning of this year’s growing season, the 2017 Wabash Rooftop Summer Gardeners have been working hard to revitalize our outdoor plots to harvest fresh herbs and vegetables that will be used in the Dining Center! So far, we’ve grown a significant amount of kale and chive on the 5th floor rooftop gardens along with some basil and mustard greens. Our first summer harvest included 5 oz. of kale, 3.2 oz of mustard greens, 1 oz of collard greens, 4 oz of chive, and 1 oz each of oregano and basil. Not bad for a couple week’s worth of work!

Photo: D. Ramirez

In addition to our outdoor plants, we have been tending to a couple of baby seedlings in the SUST Lab in the AUD building. With a little more TLC, these plants will soon be enjoying life out on the rooftop along with their other green friends. In the SUST Lab we have oregano, cilantro, sage, more basil, and even more kale.

Earlier in the week we were able to directly sow different vegetable seeds into our outdoor plots in the hope that we can gather an abundant fall harvest. We planted a variety of durable plants that will withstand the change in climate going into fall. Some of these include broccoli, champion collards, basil and, you guessed it — more kale!

Moses Viveros sowing seeds in the rooftop garden, August 2017 (photo: D. Ramirez)

So far this summer, our 5th floor garden herbs and vegetables have encountered the company of a number of critters most of which have been completely harmless. However, others have gotten into the habit of snacking on some of our green friends. We’ve observed some slugs in a couple of plots in which we will experiment with some pest control methods to rid of these unwanted, yet shockingly cute (to some), little critters.

Photo: D. Ramirez

Although crickets may be known to help themselves to a nibble in one’s vegetable gardens, they’re not creating enough damage to be considered a problem for our case. In fact, they make the experience of urban rooftop gardening even more thrilling by popping up spontaneously here and there as we maneuver through the garden plots.

Photo: M. Viveros

In order to keep our rooftop gardens thriving, we need as much help as we can get! In addition to growing vegetables and herbs for the use of our campus’ Dining Center, we’re interested in taking the sustainability initiatives with our work in the rooftop gardens a step further. Beginning this summer we will be working to prepare selective plots for introducing native prairie plant species as well as some very important milkweed to attract some butterflies.

Stay tuned for our next post that will have some updates on how our garden is growing a little greener each day!

Diana Ramirez (BA ’17 SUST and SOC) and Moses Viveros (BA ’17 SUST) both graduated with honors from Roosevelt this past May. This summer they are working part-time as rooftop gardeners at Roosevelt’s downtown Chicago Campus.

Posted in agriculture, alumni, biodiversity, food, Roosevelt, students

SUST Alumni Tend the WB Rooftop Garden at RU this Summer

SUST grads Moses Viveros and Diana Ramirez (BA, May 2017) are working this summer as Sustainability Student Associates at RU’s Chicago Campus. Among their many and various projects is tending the WB Rooftop Garden on the 5th floor of Roosevelt’s Wabash Building:

The WB Garden has provided opportunities for hands-on learning and stress relief, as well as herbs and greens for the WB Dining Center, the past three years. Glad to see Moses and Diana digging in this summer as they tend our crops the coming weeks!

Diana Ramirez works the garden plots on the WB Rooftop Garden, July 2017 (photo: M. Viveros)

Posted in alumni, food, green design, internships, Roosevelt, students

The Power of Urban Agriculture

by Vicki Gerberich

One of my favorite aspects of teaching the SUST 230 Food course in RU’s Sustainability Studies program is the fact that I have the opportunity to talk about urban agriculture and often introduce students to organizations and people growing their community through food, often in their own backyard. In simple terms, urban agriculture can be viewed as agricultural production within the cores of metropolitan areas, usually for purposes beyond home consumption.

Hoop house at Growing Power’s Iron Street Farm (V. Gerberich)

But, in more complex terms, urban agriculture plays a much bigger and more influential role in a community. Urban agriculture often plays an educational role, which can be found at community and schoolyard gardens throughout the country. Urban agriculture also plays an economic role in communities in the form of community supported agricultural (CSA) production, distribution and marketing of food and other products along with job training and skills development. Urban agriculture also has a social role to play in community development, advocating for food justice, at-risk youth programs and community integration.

Here is a list of the many benefits that urban agriculture offers, as outlined by the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at University of California Davis:

Social Impacts
• Creating Safe Places/Reducing Blight
• Access to Land
• Community Development/Building Social Capital
• Education and Youth Development Opportunities
• Cross-Generational and Cultural Integration

Health Impacts
• Food Access and Security
• Increased Fruit and Vegetable Consumption
• Food and Health Literacy
• General Well-Being (Mental Health and Physical Activity)

Economic Impacts
• Job Creation, Training, and Business Incubation
• Market Expansion for Farmers
• Economic Savings on Food
• Savings for Municipal Agencies
• Increased Home Values

Therefore, considering the plethora of benefits that urban agriculture brings to a community, it is very satisfying knowing that Chicago is among the leaders in sustainable urban agriculture. However, given the many benefits, it can not go unsaid that urban agriculture also has its many challenges, including land use issues – from contamination and blight to ownership and zoning issues.

RU students tour the Iron Street Farm in Chicago (V. Gerberich)

For over four years, I have been organizing field trips for my SUST 230 classes to tour Growing Power’s Iron Street facility. Growing Power is the result of Will Allen’s dedication to providing the cities of Milwaukee and Chicago with safe, healthy and affordable food and thus growing a larger food movement throughout the county.

Located on seven acres of asphalt on the city’s south side, the Iron Street location (3333 S. Iron Street) was a phenomenal example of what a small community of determined individuals can accomplish — turning an abandoned warehouse and its loading areas into highly productive agricultural plots and an education center. Every class that came to tour this site, was amazed at the level and variety of production with everything from aquaponics to vermicomposting (composting with worms) with bees, chickens, goats, heirloom grains, kale in all varieties, mushrooms, strawberries, tilapia, and tomatoes in between.

Mural and picnic area, Iron Street Farm, Chicago (V. Gerberich)

One summer, my class of all female students spent an hour or more sifting through the worm bins. It was one of the more delightful afternoons — a group of individuals ranging in ages, interests and background discussing the ways of the world over bins of discards that now more resembled the gold dirt that will go back to feed the seeds that we will eventually eat. This is the great gift of urban agriculture: bringing together folks from different walks of life for one common mission — safe, healthy and affordable food.

Therefore, it was a shock when I was confirming this semester’s tour at Growing Power and noticed some conflicting information. I was reviewing the website’s tour page with the class when I noticed that the top of the page still mentioned tours at the Iron Street location, but the bottom of the page listed the Chicago South Farm as the location of their public tours. After talking to someone in the Chicago office, I learned that the Iron Street location was abruptly closed and is no longer part of the Growing Power organization.

As I understood it, Growing Power did not own the land they had been working and transforming into an urban agricultural spectacle. And, it was within the last few months that the landowner decided to no longer rent that property to Growing Power. While I do not know the details of the situation, I do know that they had a lot to dismantle and move within a short period of time. I also know that this setback will not keep Growing Power from continuing to do all the good that they do. However, I suspect that the removal of such an institution will be a significant setback for the community.

The closing of this farm also impacted my class, as they were not able to visit this location and see firsthand the awesomeness of this 7-acre site. I believe that after touring this facility, my students realized the power of food, community, and justice. Here are just a few of the insights from previous classes:

Growing Power’s Fresh Moves bus (V. Gerberich)

Simone Dowdell stated: “What impressed me the most about Growing Power is the mobile farmers markets. I think that it’s a great idea to travel with fresh local produce to the people that need it most. I hope that program really takes off and they can do it in cities around the country because it could greatly decrease food deserts.”

Shelby McMasters thought that “the Will Allen’s idea of Growing Power was amazing in that not only does Growing Power grow locally, but gives back to the community also by allowing children to volunteer after school and giving some of them jobs when the graduate.”

Erika Rainey-Willaims describes her key take-aways from the tour: “Sustainability is a creative science that requires outside thinkers. Urban farming is totally unique and in a class of its own. When it comes to urban farming, it’s not about building more, its about using the space you already have. Urban farming is about more than producing healthy, sustainable food. It’s about joining communities and empowering each other.”

Luckily, Growing Power will be offering tours at their South Farm, a 14-acre food and fitness park that is a collaborative project between Growing Power and the Chicago Park District located at 8900 S. Green Bay Avenue.  And also luckily, Chicago has several choices when it comes to urban agriculture, from Growing Home to Windy City Harvest.

​Side note: Fighting eviction is apparently not uncommon, as it even happened to the infamous gangsta guerilla gardener, Ron Finley.

Learn more about:

From the Growing Power website: “Growing Power has served as a ”living museum” or “idea factory” for the young, the elderly, farmers, producers, and other professionals ranging from USDA personnel to urban planners. Training areas include the following: acid-digestion, anaerobic digestion for food waste, bio-phyto remediation and soil health, aquaculture closed-loop systems, vermiculture, small and large scale composting, urban agriculture, permaculture, food distribution, marketing, value-added product development, youth education, community engagement, participatory leadership development, and project planning.”

Vicki Gerberich is Adjunct Professor of Sustainability Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences at Roosevelt University. A longtime gardener with expertise in environmental planning, nutrition and wellness, and sustainability education, Gerberich regularly teaches SUST 230 Food and 240 Waste. She also is an active member of the Environmental Sustainability Committee at Roosevelt.


Posted in agriculture, cities, courses, education, faculty, food, Roosevelt, students

Policy Initiatives for Combating Food Waste

By Yessenia Balcazar


Photo: The Guardian

Among the topics that were covered in my most recent courses I have taken as a sustainability studies major at Roosevelt University, I found that the topic of food waste, particularly the sources of food waste, to be simultaneously fascinating and dismaying. I was especially struck by one very specific cause of food waste that often gets overlooked by the public: the relationship between retailers and food supply policies.

More specifically, current retail food supply policies regarding aesthetic standards for foods and the expectation that product displays be consistently stocked both promote inefficiency in the food supply system that leads to food waste. Approximately 1.4 billion tons of food produced globally for human consumption is going to waste annually (Finn, 2014). In developed countries, 40% of this food waste comes from retail and consumption alone (ibid). The estimated value of food loss equates to $680 billion dollars in retail prices (Gosh et al., 2015). Food waste is a social, environmental, and economic crisis.


Source: Just eat it: A food Waste Story

As it stands, current retail policies regarding food supply consist of a multitude of aesthetic standards and the requirement of having fresh, fully stocked perishables sections at all times of the day (Gunders, 2012). Blemished or disfigured food products are deemed unsuitable for supermarket retail and there are specific regulations set in place by supermarket policies that deem what are acceptable aesthetic standards (Ghosh et al, 2015). In order for food products to make it from the farm and into the food retailing system, they must match the specific measurements and coloration the policy requires (ibid). Current supermarket policy also mandates that food displays be fully stocked at all times of the day, from opening to closing.

Fortunately, all is hope is not lost. There are a multitude of retail food policy reforms that can restore efficiency in our food supply. One potential policy that can be implemented to combat the issue of food waste would be a requirement that grocery stores have a separate bin or section for perishables that did not meet cosmetic standards and sell them at a discounted price.Perishables that are overripe or near their expiration date can also be included. Not only does this work to minimize food waste, but it can also result in increased profits. While it has been argued that a possible consequence is that these sections can deter potential customers, research shows that such bins actually increase profits.

A popular grocery store in Berkley, California has implemented this idea. They offer damaged or nearly expired produce on their bargain shelf for 99 cents, and make approximately $1,500 in profits from this shelf every day (Gunders, 2012). As opposed to the typical experience of losing profits from tossing out safe to eat perishables, the implementation of this policy allows supermarkets to not only recover these losses, but actually maximize their profits over time.


An example of a “disfigured” perishables bargain bin at “Pick n Pay” grocery store. Photo source:

A second policy option to consider would be to mandate the donation of the food that is deemed unsalable to those in need. In 2011, more than 50 million Americans lived in food insecure households (Finn, 2014). Not only would this work to diminish the issue of food waste due to current policies, but it would also work toward resolving the issue of hunger and food insecurity.

There is, however, a concern surrounding legal obligations if said donated food ends up being unsafe to the consumer in any way. Donors do not want to run the risk of a lawsuit should this end up being the case. Fortunately, this is not actually possible under the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by former President Bill Clinton in 1996 (Ghosh, et. al., 2015). The Good Samaritan Act allows donors to donate food that does not meet qualifications to be sold in supermarkets, but is still otherwise safe for consumption, to various charities while being free from any legal obligations.

A final option to consider would be to eliminate cosmetic standards and focus more heavily on the implementation of standards that truly correspond to food safety. This option would also incorporate a policy that mandates less full displays and overstocking. This works to remediate both pathways by which supermarkets are losing a great amount of profits and contributing to food waste. Similar to the evidence that supports that consumers are willing to buy cosmetically imperfect perishables, they are also typically unperturbed by shelves and displays that are not heavily stocked.

A grocery chain called Stop and Shop/Giant Landover conducted a thorough analysis of freshness and customer purchases in all of their perishable departments (cited in Gunders, 2012). In their analysis they found that current overstocking practices led to spoilage on the shelf, and thus, increased customer dissatisfaction. The results showed that customers did not even notice a reduction in choice or the less full displays, and customer satisfaction actually increased seeing as there was a reduction in spoilage on the displays, and produce was, on average, actually three days fresher than before (Gunders, 2012). Stop and Shop/Giant Landover was able to save an estimated annual $100 million by removing full stock displays and unnecessary whole-stock keeping units. Given this information, it would be a very efficient decision to implement this sort of policy into supermarkets to not only divert food waste from landfills, but also to save profits and increase consumer satisfaction.

The implementation of each of these policies promotes an increase in profits through the implementation of bargain bins, the highest possible decrease in economic loss, food loss, and food waste by eliminating cosmetic standards and overstocking, and combating the issue of hunger through the donation of perishables.

Yessenia Balcazar is a senior Sustainability Studies major at Roosevelt University, which she is also president of the student environmental organization, RU Green.

Posted in agriculture, economics, food, policy, Roosevelt, students, waste