Changemaker: A Modern Day Hero Changing One Life at a Time

by Alexina Cather, MPH
By Annette Nielsen, Charles Platkin, PhD, JD, MPH, and Alexina Cather, MPH

The Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center has announced its second annual NYC Food Policy Changemaker award. One NYC food policy and practice leader who is working to transform the food system is honored every year by the Center. Nominees are policymakers, educators, community advocates, farmers, innovators and more, who are making significant strides to create healthier, more sustainable food environments, and who use food to promote community and economic development. This year’s Changemaker award goes to Stephen Ritz, CEO and Founder of the Green Bronx Machine. Read more about Ritz and his work to transform the education system and to create healthier communities through the power of food below.

A Glimpse Into The Lives Of Those Inspiring And Creating Change Before And During Covid-19

Across the country, most cities were ill-prepared for the Covid-19 emergency, including the complete disruption of food supplies in neighborhoods that were already experiencing fragile supply chains. The pandemic has created an unprecedented economic and health crisis, and is rapidly exacerbating an ongoing crisis of food insecurity, hunger and poor nutrition. In a matter of weeks, Covid-19 exposed the underlying risks, fragilities, and inequities in our food system, and has pushed that system close to its breaking point.

Our food system has been teetering on the edge for decades: children across America have been one school meal away from hunger; countries have been one export ban away from food shortages; farms one travel ban away from critical labor shortages; and families in the world’s poorest regions have been one missed day of work away from hunger and food insecurity, as well as facing ever-increasing living costs and forced migration.

Covid-19 has resulted in the upsetting reality of dairy farmers dumping milk, poultry farmers euthanizing more than 2 million chickens, and vegetable farmers letting produce rot in their fields, while, at the same time, food pantries are struggling to have enough food to feed the rising numbers of people who are hungry.

In spite of these challenges, however, heroes have emerged offering innovative solutions. Across NYC, resourceful and dedicated individuals have stepped up to address food insecurity in their neighborhoods and beyond. 

At the not-for-profit, Green Bronx Machine (GBM), long-time educators Stephen and Lizette Ritz had been working with students of all ages to bring urban agriculture into more than 500 school communities. While they started GBM in the Bronx in 2011, they have expanded their reach and now also work with schools across the globe, including countries as far away as Qatar.

Who is Stephen Ritz?  

For those of you who have not had the rare pleasure of meeting Stephen Ritz, with his quirky foam cheese hat, loose fitting clothes, ready-to-start-digging appearance, and always wearing his Green Bronx Machine t-shirt (no matter WHAT the occasion), he is a South Bronx educator who vehemently believes that students should not have to leave their community to live, learn, and earn in a better one. 

An internationally acclaimed award-winning educator, Ritz is the author of the best-selling book, The Power Of a Plant, and founder of GBM. Known to many as “America’s Favorite Teacher,” he is responsible for creating the first edible classroom in the world, which has now evolved into the National Health, Wellness and Learning Center. 

He and his students have grown more than 100,000 pounds of vegetables in the South Bronx, and, in the process, Ritz has moved school attendance from 40 percent to 93 percent daily and helped to create 2,200 youth jobs in the Bronx. His curriculum is being used in hundreds of schools across the United States and internationally, from Colombia to Dubai, from Canada to Cairo, to Doha, and beyond. Currently, Ritz is working with Anthem Blue Cross / Blue Shield to bring Green Bronx Machine programming to 22 American cities across 19 states.

Eartha Peterson-Farngalo, who develops global sales strategies for Google and also serves on the Green Bronx Machines’s board of directors, says that while she brings with her a passion for empowering youth, she is “inspired by all of the education that happens here – especially when you visit the different schools where they have programming and see the indoor tower gardens, or learn how the strawberries are pollinated – it’s powerful.”

How did Ritz get started growing vegetables with kids? When asked by the the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center, here’s what he said: 

“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 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.”

Ritz’s work is impressive — he is able to bring together educators, politicians, business leaders, community-based organizations, and more — showing how one person on a mission can mobilize a community. When you first meet Stephen, you might be under a misconception, that he never shuts off, that he is a tireless promoter with the same story – vegetables help kids in poor communities. But when you really talk to him, and break down that tough, brilliant orator’s veneer, you can see the real Stephen Ritz: a true educator, a feeling, caring and emotional human being, and brilliant strategist.  

Covid-19 Hits New York City

In early March Covid-19 hit New York City hard. According to Ritz what resulted “…in terms of on the ground, you realize we have communities that are under siege. What I mean by under siege is if you’re food-challenged in the first place, imagine what it’s like now with supermarkets not opening, with people not being able to get out, and with no access to fresh food. That really impacts communities of color.” 

Then New York City schools closed on March 16th, so students could no longer grow fresh greens aeroponically in their classrooms or learn about healthful cooking. Students lost access to free breakfast and lunch. Family members lost jobs, and cash reserves were depleted, those who needed food, were lacking resources to get food. 

“And then there are issues around children not having access to proper housing, around this whole notion of distance learning. So many children don’t have access to the internet, don’t have devices. So this whole notion of distance learning has created a whole new paradigm problem for people. It’s just mind-numbing,” said Ritz about online learning in NYC.

Tanya Singer, Green Bronx Machine board member and Bloomberg Media alum says that, “When it was decided the schools were going to close, I knew Stephen would have a way forward to keep working with the students  – and he did, in about 30 seconds.” 

Shifting gears, Stephen and Lizette started a weekly virtual read-along of different books, and brought students virtual cooking classes, with the books, recipes and ingredients delivered to each household in advance — all as a way to stay in touch with their students at South Bronx’s Community School 55 (CS55).

Battling Against All Odds, What You Can Do In One Week

Every Thursday evening, Stephen and Lizette Ritz head to Hunts Point to fill their van with fresh fruits and vegetables. On their way, they drive through neighborhoods whose streets used to be lined with mom and pop shops, but now are home to fast food restaurants, dollar, and liquor stores.   

At the Hunts Point Market, they purchase fresh produce like dense heads of green cabbage, oranges, carrots, onions, garlic and ginger, all of which  support good health. They’ve also formed a partnership with Gotham Greens, which donates containers of bright green lettuces for their outreach efforts. “Many of our school families live more than a mile from a regular grocery store,” Ritz explains, adding that a couple of area markets have closed since the onset of Covid-19. Some market owners experience disruptions in the supply chain, or, if they are able to access inventory, the high prices charged by wholesalers make staying open financially unsustainable.

When Friday morning arrives, Lizette and Stephen sort and bag the fresh produce for distribution. Then, spreadsheet in hand, they travel nearly 30 miles each week to make their deliveries throughout the Bronx, oftentimes, going to public housing locations where some of their students live. One of their stops is with Ms. Gwendolyn Primus, who has been working for more than six years to ensure that her community members have access to food. Stephen Ritz says that many of the children who come up through CS 55, do so living and playing under her supervision. 

Since the pandemic hit, and with the help of neighbors and local churches, Primus has been getting food to more than 2,000 people each day from a small storage room in her building on Washington Avenue where she has a couple of refrigerators and freezers filled with healthful offerings. Stephen Ritz, eyeing the space, enthusiastically notes that “This would be great for growing some fresh produce, as well as having cooking classes!” 

Primus says that each day she posts on social media when food has arrived and notes that, “While this isn’t a paying job, it’s a feel-good job. I like servicing people, getting the bags packed and ready to go. It’s the best work in the world. I’m on a journey that’s ordained.”

Lizette and Stephen also make a stop to drop off a few bags of fresh produce with Ms. Carmen Marcano, whom they call a “foundational elder.” Ms. Carmen, once a student at CS 55, now cares for a number of grandchildren who have been students there, too. Lizette says, “She raises half the school and makes sure so many kids are fed. She’s like family to all of us.”

In addition, they coordinate deliveries to close to thirty recovering Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) cancer patients who, because of their compromised immune systems, and as a result of Covid-19, have been unable to go out and buy groceries since the onset of Covid-19. Each week Lizette carries bags of produce to MSK patient Sula Norales’s 6th floor walk-up apartment. “I wouldn’t have any fresh food without Stephen and Lizette delivering each week,”Norales says. “Because of Covid and health safety concerns, I only go out once a week when I am scheduled for chemo.”

Irene Marte, a home health aide until an injury kept her from working, is grateful for the healthy food for her own well-being but also for her husband, who is a cancer patient with MSK. “Fresh vegetables are expensive,” she says, “and we don’t have any easy access to get them. Most of what we can get at the area food pantries are non-perishable items.”

As the Ritzes wrap up their deliveries for the day and start planning for the following week — lesson plans for the students, tending to the garden, and repeated distribution of fresh produce — it’s unclear  how long their outreach will remain a necessity. Throughout the pandemic they’ve been of service to many and, while doing so, have inspired many more to care for neighbors, bringing out the best side of humanity. 

Stephen Ritz Fact Sheet

Where you grew up: Bronx, NY

Where you live now: Bronx, NY

Background and education: I have an undergraduate degree from SUNY, two graduate degrees – one in Special Education and the other in Administration. What I am most proud of – from an education standpoint – is that our academic curriculum, aligned to growing food in classrooms is being used by SUNY to train teachers in elementary education and create a career pathway for college students, has impacted over 20,000 students in one year in Canada and will be rolled out in 2018 in Chicago Public Schools.

Food policy/food as medicine hero: Will Allen/Cesar Chavez

One word to describe our food system: Repairable

One word to describe our healthcare system: Reactive

Your favorite food: Anything I grow (or prepare) with students – partial to heirloom tomatoes – love soups, broths, consommes – warm nourishing liquids!

Your breakfast this morning: One slice of locally baked whole wheat bread, with hummus and three slices of locally grown tomato

Your last meal on earth: Anything with my family; ideally grown and / or produced in the Bronx

Must-have healing food/ingredient: Pineapple

Read Stephen Ritz’s Call to Action HERE

Stephen Ritz and Green Bronx Machine in the News

Green Bronx Machine and Stephen Ritz: Video

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