Bronx Educator Grows Organically Engaged Citizens
July 23, 2012 | Helen Weatherall
There’s a lot to the Stephen Ritz story. As told in rapid fire by the man himself the whole quickly disperses like an exploding star. He’s a kid from the South Bronx, the world’s oldest 6th grader. As an athlete in a different life he spent time in NBA camps. For a spell he would consume two-dozen eggs a day. Yes, he has had a critical health issue – more than one even. “I would have eaten myself to death,” he says letting the words hang in the air. He is high energy. He is a teacher. He is a parent. He is the originator and driving force behind an agriculture educational project called The Green Bronx Machine.
The story of The Green Bronx Machine, an urban agriculture education program that integrates farming and technology into the classroom to yield organic produce and job opportunities for public high school students in the South Bronx, began in 2005 during a particularly trying time for Ritz. The death of his son led to a change in his teaching career. To be closer to his wife he moved from teaching at a middle school to teaching at a struggling high school in the South Bronx.
“So what happened was I got all these kids coming out of prison,” said Ritz.
“They were kids that everyone else had given up on. And it turned out that I had known many of them,” he added.
But Ritz, who says of himself, “You’ll never hear a complaint from me ever,” and “I do what I’m compelled to do,” got down to business with his students.
In his classroom, Ritz started a garden.
“Everyone had a great kindergarten experience. Everyone grew a lima bean,” said Ritz recalling memories of beans sprouting in dampened paper towel wedged into cups.
Ritz’s classroom garden began simply, but like well-nurtured plants grew quickly. With the help of grow lights and the enthusiasm of the student gardeners the classroom was soon a bountiful vegetable patch. And where did this bounty go? To the cafeteria and home in bags with the students after school. For the households on the receiving end – most of which rely on food stamps – the steady flow of fresh produce meant more than any gold star on a forehead ever could. Parents, be they biological, grand, or foster took notice. In no time there was an uptick in traffic to Ritz’s homeroom.
In time the growth of plants and interest forced change. One change was that Ritz’s “chronically over-aged, under performing, under credited kids” started to excel. Not only were they attending class, they were coming early and staying late. And they were graduating. In fact, since the birth of the Green Bronx Machine, Ritz has been boasting a graduation rate of 93 percent.
Such success, however, does not induce contentment in Ritz. Ritz’s Green Bronx Machine has no brake system, only an accelerator that responds to Ritz’s heavy foot or that of anyone else who takes a turn behind the wheel.
George Irwin, the founder of Green Living Technologies has known Ritz for six years.
“When I met Steve I felt like a little guy,” he said describing the man who is now his close friend.
“The guy’s a machine. He only sleeps two or three hours a night.”
After sharing the history of his own entry into sustainable agricultural systems via a 24- year career in landscaping, Irwin told the story of how he joined forces with The Green Bronx Machine.
“We were installing a wall of tomatoes at Soul Sister in Harlem and Steve was there with some of his students.”
Having never seen anything like it before, Ritz was impressed. He immediately saw the potential green living walls represented for his kids.
“A week later I was in Steve’s classroom teaching how to build green walls,” Irwin continued.
A former teacher himself, Irwin found the experience thrilling. For 40 minutes the students gave him their rapt attention and soundly won him over.
“So I started hiring (the kids) right away,” he said.
Recalling an afternoon in Rochester, New York with a couple of Ritz’s kids, Irwin explained what about the boys affirmed his respect for them.
“I liked the way they argued,” he said adding, “They (an 18 and 19 year-old) were in the pool playing. They would break each other’s chops, but they took no offense. They really watch out for each other. They’re like a family.”
Irwin then pointed the arrow of praise back to Ritz.
“This is what Steve has done for these kids – for hundreds of kids. He really gets their minds prepped. They are very teachable.”
Fully inspired, Irwin grew his commitment to The Green Bronx Machine with the same passion that he goes about growing his business. When a professional green roof certification program came up in Boston, Irwin paid out of pocket to send 18 kids. To underscore his pride and belief in them he put them up in the Lennox Hotel. The end result was The Green Machine’s first professionally certified students. Many more students have since been trained.
This perhaps more than anything pleases Ritz who crows about it at every turn. In his talk and visual presentation that he has delivered to audiences far and wide including those of TED talks and more recently of the Sustainable Food System Conference hosted by the University of Vermont in Burlington this June, Ritz includes a slide of a student standing before an ATM machine. This student, Ritz explains, is one of the program’s fully certified, fully employed green roofing professionals. The steady paycheck he earns allowed him to open his own bank account – the first bank account in his family. Ritz’s kids, the kids of the Green Bronx Machine not only graduate from high school, but many do so already fully employed.
At current The Green Bronx Machine has to its name six-acres of farms across the Bronx. Sometime ago success forced it from its classroom confines in the Bronx to a rooftop in Harlem eight stories up on 101st and First Avenue. Maintained by fifteen students led by Ritz it has become the largest food production facility in Manhattan.
Asked about what the future holds Ritz is ready with an answer.
“I stay up late nights thinking about that,” he says leading into the details. “Compost (33 percent of our municipal waste is compostable), water mitigation, swimmable water, food policy.”
“We have kids collecting (bottles) and cans. We’re collecting 150-160 bottles a day. With the money we collect we help feed people. One mother we helped (told my students) she could now afford to buy milk for her kids. I want kids to see beyond the (redemption) nickel.”
Always forging ahead and finding ways to surmount endless obstacles Ritz leads ands instructs by example.
“I tell my kids I’m too old to ask permission. I’d rather beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.”
It’s an approach that meets with the approval of each of Ritz’s many fans.
“(Ritz) is a champion. If we had another Steve in every city in America our education system could be the most successful in the word,” said Irwin.
“When I saw the amount of food being produced (25,000 pounds since 2004) I was blown away,” said Javier Lopez, Director of New York City’s Strategic Alliance for Health
Echoing Irwin’s sentiment Lopez added, “We want to catapult (The model of the Green Bronx Machine) across the country.”