Stephen Ritz is a life-long educator, advocate, and self-proclaimed CEO—Chief Eternal Optimist—of the Bronx. As a teacher, Ritz observed the waistlines of his students expanding as opportunities, engagement, and school performances declined. He founded the Green Bronx Machine (GBM) in the South Bronx in New York City, the poorest congressional district in America, as an after-school, alternative program for high school students. The GBM has since expanded into a kindergarten through twelfth grade and beyond model that incorporates gardening and nutrition into core curriculum.
Ritz and the GBM aim to build healthy, equitable, and resilient communities by engaging students in hands-on garden education aligned to content area instruction in classrooms. According to Ritz, “Healthy children are at the heart of healthy schools and healthy schools are at the heart of resilient communities.”
In addition to improving health through garden-based curriculum, the GBM works to promote local food systems, and provide students and their families with workforce development skills. Students at Ritz’s school have grown over 30,000 pounds of vegetables—hundreds of bags of groceries inside their fourth floor classroom in the South Bronx using 90 percent less water. Vegetables are grown so that parents can come in after school for the first adult work-force development program where parents and children have the opportunity to eat and learn together and get aligned to living wage jobs.
Ritz seeks to change students’ outcomes with his locally grown initiative. For Ritz and his students it is about “inspiration, aspiration so that zip code and skin color does not determine outcomes in life but opportunities do.”
The GMB’s school-based model of engaging minds and instilling hope uses urban agriculture aligned to key school performance indicators to engage students and simultaneously improve health. Ritz and the GBM have seen positive results—targeted daily attendance rates have gone from 40 percent to 93 percent, 100 percent passing rates on New York State Examinations, and partnering towards 2,200 youth jobs.
The GBM is entering a new stage as it opens the National Health, Wellness, and Learning Center at Community School 55 in a previously underutilized library in the heart of the largest tract of public housing in the South Bronx. The surrounding community has some of the highest rates of childhood obesity, heart disease, diabetes, food insecurity, poverty, and chronic unemployment in New York City.
The National Health, Wellness and Learning Center at CS 55 is the first Career Technical Education Elementary School in the nation, featuring a year round commercial indoor vertical farm and a food processing and training kitchen with solar and alternative energy generators. A Wellness and 21st Century Workforce Development Center dedicated to serving the entire community will be open evenings, weekends, and summers. The Center will also offer professional development to colleagues and serve as a teacher-training center.
As Ritz would say, “Si Se Puede!” Schools in the Bronx can move “from impossible to on-possible!”