An Interview with Roots on the Roof: Challenging the status quo of our food systems

The rooftop of the AMS Nest at the University of British Columbia (photo from @UBC)

If you’ve ever been curious about where our team works, here’s a fun fact for you: My Green Space is currently operating out of an accelerator program at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Beyond the incredible community at e@UBC and, in particular, the Coast Capital Savings Innovation Hub, our team is surrounded by other on-campus and student initiatives that align with our values in many different ways. However, with over 52,000 students at the Point Grey campus alone, we are learning about new clubs and projects on a weekly basis, or so it seems.

At the start of this summer, we discovered an organization on campus that we wish we knew about earlier. Roots on the Roof, a student-led club and business at UBC, is unusual in both its day-to-day operations and its mission to empower and educate students in sustainable and secure food systems.

Roots on the Roof plants, grows, and harvests fruits and veggies on the roof of The Nest, the central student union building at UBC. With 192 square metres of growing space and five community plots, the students who run Roots on the Roof have the resources (and excellent sunlight conditions!) to supply all of their different programs with fresh produce.

Kale purchased at the Monday/Tuesday market stand held by Roots on the Roof

Every Monday and Tuesday from May to August, the team sells seasonal vegetables at a market stand in The Nest. Throughout summer and fall, they run a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, providing 4-5 “hyper-seasonal” produce items for the shareholders of the CSA, often students who are looking for an alternative to the average grocery store. To keep the Roots on the Roof team even busier, they organize workshops centred around art, food preservation, and wreath-making, to name a few. All of these programs, from the market to the workshops, are opportunities to engage in discussions on food and its role in creating a more sustainable future.

This past week, we chatted with Joyce Liao and Raihan Hassen, the two interns with Roots on the Roof this summer. Joyce, who specializes in Food and the Environment in the faculty of Land and Food Systems (LFS) at UBC, was the first team member from Roots on the Roof that I met back in May while purchasing some delicious kale at their market stand. Also studying LFS but specializing in Nutrition, Raihan’s name means “basil” in Arabic, which is quite fitting! Given these two girls’ fields of study, it’s no doubt that they’re making waves in the sustainable food space on campus, but it was really their underlying reasons for being involved in Roots on the Roof that resonated with and inspired My Green Space.

Joyce Liao and Raihan Hassen, interns with Roots on the Roof

When asked about the types of people they meet at events and at the garden itself, Joyce immediately mentioned the importance of “creating experiences at the garden” and how “acknowledging the people and the place” has shown that Roots on the Roof is about more than just a transaction.

“We get a lot of different people coming up here and something about growing food is that it connects everyone of every background,” Raihan added. “We’ll get the construction workers on their break and they’ll talk to us. They’ve spoken to me about their gardens at home. We have professors that will come and buy [produce] from the market stand.”

It’s not only university students and adults who are learning from Roots on the Roof either; Joyce and Raihan have been scheduling kids camps to visit the garden throughout the summer. “It’s amazing how much some kids know about food,” Joyce said, mentioning that some of the children are able to identify garlic, lavender, and other vegetables are growing in their gardens at home. “They know more than a lot of adults that come to visit.”

Joyce and Raihan check up on their kale and chard plants (look at that kale forest!)

Being exposed to new people and new experiences has led to big wins for the two interns. Through running community workshops and learning how to be better gardeners, Joyce and Raihan have gained a new level of confidence. They both credit the president of Roots on the Roof and their mentor, Brendan, with challenging them to think about food in a more critical light and analyzing each experience to find ways for self-improvement.

“[After each event] we always reflect, journal, and talk about it: what was good, what was bad. Discovering the processes of reflecting is something else that we’ve learned,” Joyce said.

By working as urban farmers, entrepreneurs at the weekly farm markets, and facilitators of community workshops, there’s no doubt that Joyce and Raihan have many tasks to juggle and roles to play within Roots on the Roof. Along with the interns’ personal growth comes a deeper understanding of the role food plays in our lives.

“Something else that’s pretty powerful to listen to is other people’s relationship with food,” Raihan said. “We see how other people relate to food and learn what it means to them. For me, food is one thing - this is what I eat to sustain me - but people have a lot of different cultural and and even spiritual relationships with food.”

All in all, Roots on the Roof is making a difference in how we see food and how we connect with the people around us. We love the values they’re upholding at UBC and look forward to seeing the sustainable and tangible impact they will have on our community.


Looking to check out Roots on the Roof for yourself? Visit their market stand in The Nest from 12-2pm every Monday and Tuesday for the rest of the summer. They also have drop-in hours at the garden every Thursday at 1pm. Help them harvest vegetables and take care of plants while learning all about our food systems!

**Cover photo from @UBC (Twitter)

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