Amidst New York City’s South Bronx—a place traditionally rife with gang activity, poverty and crime— a thriving population of young urban farmers are greening and beautifying neighborhoods, growing healthy food and providing it to people in need. This is the Green Bronx Machine—led by Stephen Ritz, one very inspiring man.
“We are growing ourselves into a whole new economy in the bullet field, battlefield and plastic-waste field of the South Bronx,” Ritz told Organic Connections. “We’re proving that we can grow food profitably, efficaciously, and more importantly, integrate it into our lives in ways that benefit all.”
“Green Bronx Machine was born out of the belief that we can all succeed. If you teach those who are traditionally apart from success and make them a part of success, together we can all prosper. We’re sitting on the biggest opportunity for us in the South Bronx—growing, resourcing and recycling our way into a whole new economy.”
Beginnings in Severe Challenge
While his influence is being felt throughout and now well beyond the Bronx, Ritz is first and foremost a teacher. It was a major challenge placed before him in that capacity that was the genesis of Green Bronx Machine.
“At one point I had a group of seventeen kids, probably the most challenged kids in this school,” Ritz explained. “A lot of them came to me via the criminal justice system. One thing to know about kids ages 16 to 21 who come out of the criminal justice system is that they usually go back in. Most of them did not want to be in school—nothing to do with me, but having everything to do with just not succeeding at school and a lot of other life challenges. Someone approached me about a potential project outside of school involving some community beautification and restoration that also involved skills like carpentry, plumbing and a lot of demolition work.
“These kids were very excited to get out of school. I had commandeered this project, but I had a lot of support from colleagues who really didn’t know how to engage these youngsters; they were thrilled that I was willing to own these kids and literally make them my family and take them off everybody’s hands. We got out of school and, lo and behold, the kids really succeeded. They took to this and it became their green graffiti, if you will.”
What happened to those seventeen kids? “They all graduated; that’s the most important thing,” Ritz continued. “But not only that, the bulk of them went on to the Bronx Environmental Steward Training Program in the South Bronx. They moved themselves into living-wage jobs and/or post-graduate opportunity, which is really what the promise of public education is about.”
Growing Their Own Food
As the program progressed, Ritz became keenly aware of another issue. “Where I live there is very little access to locally grown food and, even more importantly, very little access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” he said. “Like so many others, I was 100 percent disconnected from what I ate. But through the kids nurturing plants, one thing led to another. We went from ornamental plants, green roofs, green walls and community gardens ultimately to vegetables.
“When I realized the cultural relevance of the food and the nutritional value of the food, I myself lost over 100 pounds by eating the things we grew. It became critical for me to integrate nutrition into school where it was needed most: where they are learning. And 30,000 pounds of vegetables later, here we are.”
A Multitude of Projects
With the food component included, Green Bronx Machine has now become a multitude of enthusiastic projects. “We have a wonderful ‘food for others’ area, which is an outdoor community garden, and 100 percent of the food grown goes to local soup kitchens,” Ritz said. “Ironically and somewhat sadly, many of my kids have either family members or someone they know who gets up to two meals a day at those shelters.
“We have local farmers’ markets where the kids are involved in entrepreneurial skills. And we have community days where we get parents and grandparents to come in and purchase food for pennies on the dollar that they can’t get locally in their own communities. And guess what? When they show up, we sign them up to vote; we have the local politicians come out. We surround them with a team of dedicated professionals and a continuum of services that are going to enrich their lives.”
Ritz is able to observe, on a daily basis, tremendous changes in the students in his charge. “My kids are all losing weight,” he reported. “They’re eating things that they’ve never eaten before. They’re getting critical nutrition where they need it most: in school. It affects their academic health, their social health and their physical health. My kids are getting exercise. But then you notice other things: you see a decrease in graffiti, in littering, in vandalism. I see kids aspiring to things and places that they’ve never aspired to before. As a teacher, that’s just wonderful.”
Beyond a Single Classroom
Ritz has taken his program well beyond his own classroom and even neighborhood. “I started this in Discovery High School,” he related. “I am now presently at Hyde Leadership Charter School, where I work. But I also affiliate to a number of other schools. Additionally I have kids that have graduated who are now pushing into more schools, doing my work—motivating teachers, motivating students, coming in and doing the technology piece. We’ve got a lot of little tentacles going on there. It’s become an organism with many arms.
“I just installed a new year-round hydroponic garden at JVL Wildcat Academy, a second-opportunity school that has a culinary program. We’re looking at not only growing the food and integrating it right into the culinary program there, but also creating add-value products that kids are going to market. Hopefully there will be a Green Bronx Machine salsa coming to a market near you.
“Later on in the week I have a group of kids being invited to present at the Indoor Gardening Expo in San Francisco.”
Ritz’s publicity took a giant leap when he gave a TED talk last year—and now everyone wants to know the story. He is a frequent guest on radio programs and is a highly requested speaker. “The US Green Building Council became apprised of my work,” he said. “I became a national ambassador for this council, so I travel the country talking about what is possible.”
Disney, with their series Pass the Plate, just paid Ritz and Green Bronx Machine a visit to film them, and there is much more in the works.
Determination for Change
“At the end of the day, we are moving people who are ‘apart from’ to being ‘a part of’ and reclaiming neighborhoods and lives in ways that we’ve never imagined,” Ritz concluded. “That to me is just spectacular.
“There are those people who say you have to accept the things you cannot change. I am determined to change the things that I can no longer accept; that is, sick kids, poor diets and bad environments. These things are a lot easier to fix than people realize. It all starts with seeds and it all starts with classrooms.”