By Alexina Cather, MPH
Stephen Ritz is an educator in the South Bronx and the founder of the Green Bronx Machine. The self-proclaimed CEO, or Chief Eternal Optimist, of the Bronx, he is a tireless advocate for healthy eating in schools and underserved communities. By growing gardens in schools in the South Bronx, Stephen works to create healthy students, communities, and cities.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with him about his work in the South Bronx, the opportunities that come out of school gardens, and food policy.
New York City Food Policy Center (FPC): What motivated you to get involved with food policy and to become a food policy advocate?
Stephen Ritz (SR): The realities of my life and my students’ lives. I ballooned to over 300 pounds as an ex-athlete simply by eating what was available in the local community. My habits, which were really informed by the students, were killing me. Over the course of my 30-plus years of being an educator I am seeing kids getting sicker and fatter. And I am appalled at what is happening to kids. I am seeing the onset of puberty in girls coming at much younger ages than I did 30 years ago. The stark realities of my life and my students’ lives in the South Bronx prompted me to become a food policy advocate.
It was simple. The realities of my life as an educator demanded that I start looking at the connection between food and education and become an advocate for kids. Also, the way I see kids in high-need, low-income communities being marketed to, not only the by food industry but overall, demanded that I stick my neck out and move us from being consumers to becoming producers—really determining and advocating for and contributing to our destiny. I am a voice for the voiceless. Children are often at the bottom of the food chain, and that needs to change. Kids need to be empowered!
And who knew that we could grow food? That was the coolest thing. I had no idea we could grow food. Ten years ago I couldn’t tell you 10 kinds of vegetables and now I grow 37 kinds of fruits and vegetables indoors with my kids, en route to outstanding academic performance and changing health outcomes. What could be more spectacular? Crisis equals opportunity! These aren’t challenges; these are opportunities dressed in work clothes, and I believe that my kids are poised, ready, willing, and able to change their destiny if given the opportunity. So we’ve got to create that opportunity, make that opportunity, and acknowledge that opportunity. That opportunity is here and this is our moment!
FPC: How did you get involved with school gardens? Were you always drawn to gardening?
SR: No! I got involved with school gardens by mistake, but by absolute necessity. Was I always drawn to gardening? Absolutely not. There’s a part of me that loathes it but loves the results. But at the end of the day it’s about planting seeds, and my children are my seeds. For me, seeds represent genetic potential and my goal is to make sure all my students and all my colleagues reach their G-d given genetic potential.
To be quite honest my wife and I lost children, and that tragedy required a redirection of my life personally and professionally. I wound up working at one of the most dysfunctional high schools in all of New York City, and someone sent my students and me a box of bulbs. We didn’t even know what they were. I thought they were onions, but quite frankly, the dean of students in me and the self-preservation in me thought they were projectiles that needed to be hidden, because I had 17 overage and under-credited children, many of them with all sorts of baggage, from being homeless to being in foster care to special needs to adjudicated youth, and thought that these “projectiles” should be kept as far away from them as possible in order to save my job and save them. So I put them behind a faulty radiator and basically forgot about them. Then one day there was a fight in class and some of the kids went looking behind the radiator for something, and there were hundreds of flowers back there because the steam from the radiator had forced the bulbs. The boys wanted to give them to the girls and the girls wanted to bring them to their moms, some kids suggested that we sell them. And literally that year I planted I think fifteen thousand daffodil bulbs with gang members across New York City doing a beautification project commemorating 9/11, and that’s how we learned about gardening.
The upshot to gardening with kids in school—and at that time it was community gardening and ornamental gardening—is that you can turn ugly unproductive spaces into highly productive, beautiful, aspirational places in the course of a day, and move kids who have not known success to being a part of success on a daily basis. Kids who were at one point seen as outsiders in their neighborhood could become a part of it and add value for all. So gardening is just amazing.
And then I learned about food! I learned about vegetables! So we went from ornamental gardening and landscaping to living-wage jobs; because for my students, gardening represented the opportunity to have a living-wage job, to actually growing food and becoming involved in food justice issues. So I haven’t always been drawn to gardening, but 35,000 pounds of vegetables later, grown with kids in the South Bronx, my favorite crops are organically grown citizens, graduates, members of the middle class, kids who are going to college, young people who aren’t going to jail, and who are eating themselves to good health and aspiring to things they never imagined before. How cool is that?
The amazing thing about gardening is that a crop well planted can give you a harvest of epic proportions, and that harvest is my students, their health, their families, and their academic outcomes. While I grow vegetables, my vegetables grow students, school performance, and communities, as well as jobs.
FPC: You’ve had nearly 1 million views of your Ted Talk (https://www.ted.com/talks/stephen_ritz_a_teacher_growing_green_in_the_south_bronx?language=en). Did you ever expect such interest? How has it changed your life and the mission of the Green Bronx Machine?
SR: I have given several Ted Talks and that one is the most popular. I am very proud of that, but I’ve given others that I think are far better, and I think my best Ted Talk is the one that is soon to come. I am prepared to launch something more than just waving the flag, which is what that Ted Talk was. Now, I really have some ideas worth spreading.
The beauty of that Ted Talk is that I never expected to give it. I delivered that talk straight out of the ICU with a colostomy bag attached to me, and the kids wrote it. They put that talk together for me, so I was determined to give it to honor them. But I have learned a lot since then and that is what I am really excited to share.
I am much more proud of the Ted Talk called “The National Health, Wellness and Learning Center at PS 55,” But I think the fact that the one you mentioned focuses on what a teacher and student can do speaks to the great debate in this nation, which is about what is possible in terms of public education. So I am honored and humbled by the response. It has changed my life in that I have now traveled the world. In fact, I was in customs the other day and getting the evil eye when the immigration officer looked up and said, “Cool Ted Talk dude.” So that’s kind of cool.
But, more importantly, it has validated my kids’ lives. Around the world I hear, “Si, se puede.” And the power of being an Amer-I-CAN, Mex-I-CAN, Domin-I-CAN, and an African Amer-I-CAN! Now more than ever, given the political landscape of this country combined with some of the educational crises we are facing, that sends a very valid message that this is our moment—that children from the South Bronx and South Detroit and South Chicago and South L.A. and Baltimore and Ferguson and St. Louis, where I now have programming, are poised to be leaders and innovators and creators and just need an opportunity to grow something greater and grow themselves into a whole new economy, a whole new paradigm of success and a whole new sense of resiliency. So it has changed everything. More importantly for my children than for me. And most important for my students, it is a message of hope that is traveling the world and even got me to be a top ten finalist for the Global Teacher Prize.
FPC: Can you speak briefly about the Green Bronx Machine’s goals for the future?
SR: World domination one vegetable and one healthy student at a time! The Green Bronx Machine’s plans for the future are simply this: We started a program with overage, under-credited kids who had not been successful and proved that we could make them a part of success by validating them and giving them opportunities. But wouldn’t it be great to raise more healthy students instead of fixing broken men? So really what we are doing is embedding ourselves into public schools not as an add-on but as a built-in.
We are tweaking the model of the National, Health, Wellness and Learning Center. I am thrilled to announce that on May 10th we will be formally cutting the here in the South Bronx with our beloved Bronx Borough President, Ruben Diaz, Jr., and lots of people from the Board of Education; even Dr. Betty Rosa, the NYS Ed Chancellor is coming—proof the Bronx CAN—Change Attitudes Now—and we’re out to Change America Now! The very fact that the Department of Education is onboard is absolutely critical, because we are redefining the way kids are educated in school about healthy eating and healthy outcomes. It’s a regenerative effect if you will and it’s spectacular. Teaching the art and science of growing healthy food in communities that have limited means and limited access to it as part of the core school curriculum can have a game-changing effect, and that’s what we are seeing, classroom by classroom, school by school, city by city, nation by nation, I have been to Colombia, I’ve been to Dubai, I’ve been to Mexico, I’ll be in Canada next month. We are really changing the way people look at public education and public policy around food, and that is critical. For so many, food is the problem. We believe that food and education around it, along with healthy access to it, is the solution, and that is the message we are carrying forward into the future. Zip code and skin color should not determine outcomes in life and our model is proving that point daily—this is about local ownership and responsibility.
Since my first Ted Talk, I have moved away from DIY and fixed technology to far more replicable, scalable, portable and affordable, technologies. We are growing food indoors in schools all year long, using 90 percent less water and 90 percent less space, but, most importantly, aligned to common core and content area instruction so that it truly becomes part of everybody’s day. We believe that healthy children are at the heart of healthy schools, and healthy schools are at the heart of healthy, resilient communities! We want to become not an oasis but part of a rainforest. We are creating a hyper-connected, hyper-local, hyper-niche-specific, interconnected series of relationships that grow outward into a community and change the entire fabric of the community as well as outcomes in public education. By creating beautiful classrooms we are attracting teachers to communities that have been hard to staff and hard to educate. We are changing the culture of schools around food and that is critical in communities, particularly in the Bronx, which is the unhealthiest county in all of the United States. In a community with limited means and access to healthy fresh food, we are growing it daily in school aligned to outstanding academic performance. We are creating a replicable model for success around the world, and I am just thrilled to be a part of it.
FPC: Can you talk about the impact that hands-on garden education has had on your school and the surrounding community?
SR: Let’s get granular with data. We have moved targeted attendance from 40 percent to 93 percent by giving kids the opportunity to have hands-on experiences in school. And when 93 percent of my kids are coming to school, everybody in New York City and the nation benefits. I’ve had year after year of students passing standardized tests – critical benchmarks. Here, in a small elementary school, our attendance is close to 97 percent daily. Kids can’t wait to be here. They love coming to school; they are excited to be in school. We have 50 students showing up daily for gardening club. For the first time in years, We’ve had a surplus of teachers applying to this school, and that’s great. In a community that’s known for unemployment and chronic underemployment we’ve partnered towards 2,200 local jobs, and my kids have farmed their way to the White House and back, that’s amazing!
What does it look like closer to home? It looks like I have lost more than 100 pounds and my kids have lost thousands of pounds combined. I have kids that are now aspiring to eating broccoli, and carrots, and kale and three kinds of gourmet lettuce on a daily basis. I have kids who are growing their favorite vegetable for their favorite teacher and bringing home bags of vegetables to their parents in a community with limited means and limited access. Those are some of the impacts that gardening is having on the community, and kids are farming across the common core here in school. They are excited. We have reading to plant programs! Students are doing water measurements, they are calculating and graphing pH, and most importantly, when you teach kids about nature you teach them to nurture. And when we as a society teach children to nurture,we collectively embrace our better nature.
Kids are becoming water stewards, seed stewards, plant stewards, they’re becoming environmentally conscious of what’s happening to them and their community, and that’s great. We put animals in class and the kids say hmmm maybe we should feed them pizza and skittles? No, they now understand that eating across the rainbow is not a bag of Skittles; it is healthy, fresh food. They understand that we are part of a larger interconnected ecosystem, and plants and animals, just like human beings, are living, breathing things entitled to fresh air and clean water and sunlight, and that’s game-changing. I have 50 kids showing up daily for a gardening club in the South Bronx. Go figure!
FPC: The Green Bronx Machine is embarking on a new project, the National Health, Wellness, and Learning Center at CS 55. Can you talk about the project and how you hope it will impact the community?
SR: The impact is already huge. We have 25 periods of in-class academic instruction aligned with 25 periods of out-of-class academic instruction. We have parent cooking programs, teaching cooking programs, student cooking programs. We have a school-garden-to-school-cafe program, and we are starting a workforce development program. We have one of the highest percentages of homelessness and children living in homeless shelters in New York City, so providing a place where parents and children can come together to grow food, cook food, and eat healthy, fresh food is game-changing for the community.
Behaviorally we have seen a 50 percent reduction in out-of-class time, and that means kids are learning, teachers are teaching, and we’re having a great time while also being aligned to something important—healthy, fresh food that we can eat on a daily basis and take home and share with our families.
The workforce development piece is huge. We are teaching people about urban ag, and we are going to be starting an adult training program that will teach parents food safety and food handling skills. We are also partnering with local employers in restaurants and food services who will pay a living wage for very forgiving, people-friendly, entry-level careers. In this community that will be transformative, because neither jail nor retail pays a living wage in the South Bronx.
FPC: How can other schools create a successful hands-on educational gardening program? Do you have specific advice for other educators who wish to improve students’ health at their schools? (Maybe you can provide a quick “how-to-do-it list?”)
SR: Well, first and foremost you gotta walk the walk. What that means is that the eyes of the future are looking back at us and demanding that we get this right. I ask teachers to be role models, bring a healthy plate to school. Model healthy behavior. When I was 300 pounds and living at McDonald’s I was really not a great example, but I have lost 120 pounds bringing healthy food to school daily and have literally eaten my way to good health simply by eating the food I grow with the kids in school, which is a great start. Be mindful that you are a role model and that the kids are watching. Their eyes are always open. So please, eat healthy food and talk about healthy food and talk about healthy options in front of your children. I need more fruit and vegetable champions in the world, so be one please! That’s easy, and that’s low-hanging fruit.
The other thing I’ve really focused on is scalable, replicable, year-round technology. In the old days I was doing crazy, vertical walls, and green roofs. Now I’m focusing on in-class, scalable gardening projects that involve a lot of academic learning so that kids can get the connection between resources and they’re excited to be farming in class. While I am known for huge projects, I am really focusing on tower gardening, small-scale projects in class that have big impact and are student-driven. I don’t expect everybody to be a crazy gardener or have acres and acres of farmland or crazy vertical walls. What I expect teachers to do is talk about nature and nurture in class and give children the opportunity to plant seeds and learn about the germination of seeds—the percentage of germination, the ratio and proportion. Give them the opportunity to take care of their plants and become kind, caring, compassionate, empathetic, nurturing children aligned to a greater global good. It doesn’t have to be big; it just has to be manageable. Keep it small, keep it manageable. Celebrate often and eat healthy foods. Examine what is going on in your community.
FPC: What do you believe are the greatest food policy challenges for New York City? And the greatest opportunities?
SR: I don’t like to talk about challenges; I like to talk about opportunities. And I believe the greatest opportunity is this thing called education. To teach children what food is, where it comes from, and how they are being marketed to. If we teach children what food is, and that they don’t have to be bottom-end consumers but can be producers and control their destiny, we are going to change the rhetoric and the language and outcomes of marginalized communities. The other greatest opportunity is to address the issue of waste—across all sectors of our society. To think that obesity is now the face of hunger in America—and that the rest are shunted, stunted and in pain—is wholly appalling and unacceptable to me. I am determined to address hunger, nutritional deficiency, obesity and poverty in this lifetime – realize this: Students will never be well read if the y are not well fed!
FPC: What is the one food policy change at the federal level that would have the greatest impact on health?
SR: That’s a huge question. I am going to bite that off in little bits because I never think that big, but I’d love to see transparency in labeling. I think it’s very important that there’s honesty and transparency in labeling. People need to know what is in their food and where it’s coming from. But for me the greatest impact on health would be supporting school gardens and farm-to-table programs.
I love the first lady. Let’s move, but let’s eat better too and let’s understand what food is. Also I gotta give a shout out to all my ugly fruits and vegetables. That ugly food is good food, and understanding that is critical. It’s critical that kids understand that nothing is perfect; not them and not their fruits or vegetables either. So ugly is good. Embrace the ugly.
FPC: What can grassroots communities do to change food policy?
SR: Continue to grow their food. Continue to steward their communities. I believe that the untapped human potential in marginalized and underserved communities is the greatest natural resource in this world. So we need to continue to innovate, iterate, and ideate, and most importantly activate. Get out there and vote dammit! And also vote with your pocketbook. No more cheap food. Cheap food is so damn expensive—it is killing this country.
I am not antibusiness and I want to make that clear. I am very pro-business, but I am anti an extraction economy. I am anti economies that prey on our children with single-serve shelf products that I call MESS—manufactured, edible, synthetic substances. We need to move away from this mess and get back to real food and real opportunities, telling people what they are getting and how they are getting it and what their options are. The options don’t need to be fast and cheap and easy. We need to start thinking long-term. And bring people to the table. Have more community meals. Less fast food and more community meals.
Stop and talk to people. Slow down, say hello, please, and thank you, not next. Imagine if we as a society treated our children, workers, farmers and soil like we treated our precious laptops and fancy shoes? Imagine if we were as committed to refreshing our soil as we were to refreshing our screen savers and phone applications!
FPC: What was your greatest personal moment as an educator?
SR: To be named a top ten finalist for the Global Teacher Prize and to be recognized by the White House and Pope Francis, heads of state and colleagues as someone on the cutting edge of education is beyond anything that this local educator could ever have asked for. But my greatest moment is coming to school everyday and getting the love that I get from hundreds of students and colleagues and families on a daily basis. To be part of the fabric of a community I love and wish to serve is absolutely critical to me.
Three weeks ago I showed up in Dubai and a five-year-old walked up to me and gave me a custom bow tie that she had made after she learned that I like to wear bow ties because she likes to grow vegetables. That was spectacular. The hugs and the love that I get on a daily basis are priceless and I am forever grateful. Everyday is my greatest day. Everyday that I get to put my feet on the ground and set out to do something great is spectacular. Everyday is an opportunity to do something great! All the data in the world points to a single fact, children that have access to one kind, caring adult will be successful in life—so please be accessible to one child. Remember, no child rises to low expectations so keep the bar as high as possible in all that you do!
To be quite frank, I am honored with a phone call and an interview like this. To have a platform to speak to children, to be happy, healthy, and aspirational, to be a voice for the voiceless, that’s a blessing. To be able to do the work that I am doing. I want to shout out my principal, Principal Luis Torres; I want to shout out to Chancellor Farina and Dr. Betty Rosa for saying yes, I want to shout out my Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., my State Senator Gustavo Rivera, my Congressman Jose Serrano, Councilmember Vanessa Gibson—tireless advocates for my beloved Bronx and local community. All these wonderful people who are supporting me on a daily basis are amazing. Of course, my wife and daughter—the backbone of my life—as well as our extended student family—and all the children who come up and give me hugs and kisses and say, “Hello Mr. Ritz” and walk me to my car and ask me about my wife and daughter are amazing. Everyday is a great day.
Food policy websites you read: Food Tank, Civil Eats, Change Food, Comm Food,
Current location: South Bronx
Hometown: Bronx, NY
Favorite food: I really love hummus, nuts, berries, vegetables. If you eat like a king you’ll die like a peasant, but if you eat like a peasant you will live like a king. I try to eat very simply and seasonally and humbly.
Favorite Website: Green Bronx Machine – www.greenbronxmachine.org. Also our students run the Facebook page; they run the metrics. Please support the children and let them know that they are loved around the world, so “like” the Green Bronx Machine’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/green.BX.machine.
SI SE PUEDE – MAKE EPIC HAPPEN!
Photo credit: Green Bronx Machine