Mobile Greenery in the Concrete Jungle

Video Courtesy of Bus Roots

Lulu’s Local Eatery is bringing fresh locally sourced produce to the streets of St. Louis—literally.

The food truck, owned by Robbie Tucker and Lauren “Lulu” Loomis, offers customers healthy and fast lunch options, all locally grown in their custom-built, mobile rooftop herb and vegetable garden.

“We make everything from scratch. It’s a total labor of love,” says Mrs. Loomis, describing how she and her husband do most of the cooking inside the truck itself.

The truck-top garden is home to a variety of greens, including Swiss chard, kale and chives. “We are getting a lot of our herbs from the garden,” says Mrs. Loomis. “Herbs are usually the most expensive thing so it is really cost effective.”

The Loomises came up with the idea about four years ago. “We were living in Chicago and decided that we wanted to get out of the city and reconnect with our food and the earth. We wanted to learn how to grow our own food,” says Mrs. Loomis. “So we planned a trip to WWOOF in New Zealand.”  WWOOFing is a program in which volunteers work on a farm for four to six hours a day in exchange for food and accommodation.

After spending months harvesting their own produce, Mrs. Loomis and her husband experienced difficulty readjusting to a less-connected lifestyle in the States.

“We thought that a food truck servicing locally and organically sourced food was not only a good idea, but was convenient.”

But, to make their idea a reality, the Loomises were going to need help.

So they called in Marco Antonio Castro, the founder of a company focused on nomadic agriculture, called Bus Roots.

Studying at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, Castro witnessed firsthand the problems that rain caused in gridlocked New York City. He saw plants as an untapped solution to many of the city’s problems.

“It’s New York, when it would rain, streets would be flooded,” he says. “Plants know how to gather the rain, gather the sun and clean the air.”

But unlike Castro’s native Mexico, urban environments like New York City lack the proper real estate to cultivate that kind of green space. So where does one find space in New York City?

“I realized there was a space on top of buses,” he says. And that’s the whole idea behind Bus Roots: a system of busses with rooftop gardens that aim to “reconnect urban communities with nature, using plants in a practical and playful way.”

Castro hopes that with the help of Bus Roots, cities like New York will be able to reclaim unused urban space, increase the amount of green spaces and generate “a new traveling botanical history.”

The first successful Bus Roots prototype was installed on the roof of a bus known as the Bio Bus. Displaying a 15-square-foot garden, which weighs a total of 225 pounds—the estimated equivalent of one NYC transit passenger— the bus was the first to host the extensive “green roof” system that now powers the Loomises’ convenient food business.

The garden is suspended on a lightweight aluminum structure and uses “strong fabric made from recycled bottles” to facilitate water retention, explains Castro.

The system is custom-made and combines elements from traditional rooftop gardens, along with hydroponics and Sub-Irrigated Planters. This technology allows for faster installation, lower maintenance, less weight and, as a result, greater ecological advantages.

“The BioBus has been growing for 20 months, traveling around NYC and across the US,” says Castro. “It has been very interesting watching kids be very excited [about the bus] and telling their parents—‘Look, Mom there’s plants!’”

In addition to its aesthetic appeal, Bus Roots plans to impact the success of storm water management, mitigate urban heat island effect, and provide habitat restoration.  The urban garden provides up to 40 decibels in noise reduction and reduces sulfur dioxide and nitrous acid pollution by 37 and 21 percent, respectively.

In the future, Castro hopes that it will be able to provide food desert communities with an accessible fresh food option.

In addition to more prototypes similar to Lulu’s Local Eatery, Castro hopes that a fleet of buses will be able to create “a network of small gardens that are going to places where people would not normally have a green space.”

“Instead of having a parking lot, you have a moveable park.”

In a city like New York, the impact could be notable. “A public transit bus has a roof surface of 340 square ft. The MTA fleet has around 4,500 buses. If Bus Roots were to be grown on the roof of every one of [those] buses we would have 35 acres of nomadic green space in the city,” Castro says. “This would be the equivalent of four Bryant Parks.”

Castro has presented his idea at a variety of environmental fairs, including the Festival for Ideas for the New City organized by the New Museum in New York City. Despite his optimism, many MTA drivers are skeptical of the type of added maintenance the rooftop gardens would require. But, according to the Loomises, Bus Roots gardens are “relatively low maintenance.”

“This is our second season now. It’s a little bit of an experiment but we are keeping a gardening journal to track what is going on from month to month.”

“My husband is 6-foot-4,” Mrs. Loomis jokes. “He just walks up on the roof of the truck. But, we also have a wand extension” to assist with watering.

“The worst thing is just that our clearance with the rooftop garden is about 14 feet so we have to watch it if there are any low hanging trees,” says Mrs. Loomis.

But this is their only complaint. “It has been amazing. It is like our little mascot. People have been so inspired. Little kids love it. They think it is so magical.” 

Samantha Zeldin is a senior at The George Washington University majoring in Journalism and Mass Communication.

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