Sowing Seeds and Saving Lives – The Power of a Classroom Farm
Imagine if more people adopted the philosophy of Stephen Ritz. Not willing to accept the things he can’t change, Stephen changes the things he can’t accept.
It only takes a moment of watching and listening to this south Bronx science teacher to know that this is a man on a mission; a mission to change the lives of his students. Early on, Stephen observed that his kids were getting heavier, and sicker and becoming less interested in their future. A trend Stephen was unwilling to accept.
Born and raised in the same neighborhood as his students, this uber urban culture is in his blood. He’s seen the worst of times and has taken it upon himself to build a brighter tomorrow for the younger generations he serves.
It’s a tall order to be sure. But when your self appointed title is CEO (Chief Eternal Optimist) of Bronx County, who dares stand in his way?
Determined to create a new landscape, Stephen created the Green Bronx Machine—a multi-faceted approach to changing lives through food. I first learned of him and his mission through a short but compelling video on the project through Progressive’s Apron Project. It’s all I needed to see to want to help tell this hero’s story.
Armed with the realization of the power of real food (as in fresh fruits and vegetables) in building healthy minds and bodies, Stephen committed his life’s work to teaching kids to grow it. In the process, he knew the real life application of doing so would transcend all levels of academics: reading, writing, math, science, and more.
What he didn’t know was just how much impact this approach would have. Today, his kids have something to look forward to in coming to school. In fact, attendance has risen from an apathetic 43% average to 93%, all for the opportunity of farming.
Not your typical farmer
Stephen will be the fist to tell you, he’s not a farmer. Perhaps not in the traditional sense, yet for several years now, he’s planted many seeds. The main difference is that Stephen’s seeds are his students.
Not one to shy away from a challenge, Stephen is farming in the most unfertile soil—a modern version of the great American dust bowl. His students come from one of the biggest, most vast food deserts in America. Understandably, they didn’t know where vegetables came from; let alone what they tasted like.
Collectively, 100% are either special needs, English language learners, homeless, in foster care, or adjudicated youth. Almost all his kids live below the poverty level. The only thing in abundance here are the jails and strip clubs. There are six of each within the district.
Believing is seeing
With everything to gain and nothing to lose, Stephen saw past the challenges, to the possibilities and belief that teaching kids to grow food could provide the most transformational ways to benefit his students and revitalize the community.
When he took on this project, the kids and the food they had (and didn’t have), were the problems. Now, they are the solutions.
Today Stephen is witness to major changes in his student’s lives. They’re losing weight. They’re exercising and eating things they’ve not had before. And they’re getting nutrition where they need it most: school. Accordingly, their physical, academic and social health has greatly improved.
And then you notice other things: less graffiti, littering, and vandalism. Kids are aspiring to things and places and jobs they’ve never aspired to before.
Those same students are now learning how to grow food in the most unlikely places. Where community blight once thrived, thriving community gardens now stand to take its place.
Harvesting Hope and Cultivating Minds
Perhaps the greatest reward of Stephens’s efforts may be in seeing his students become graduates—then sticking to the program and doing amazing things. They’re staying out of trouble, keeping weight off, working, and going to college. Some are even building and maintaining new gardens to give future generations of students the same chance of success that was afforded them.
The Green Bronx Machine has successfully engaged kids and created a green economy where the work can never be outsourced. And they’re no longer having to leave their county to live, learn and earn in a better one.
Equipped with an unflappable optimism for a better tomorrow, the wisdom to know change takes time, the patience and stamina to stay the course, the willingness and strength to lean into challenges and the unselfish determination to do whatever it takes to get there; Stephen Ritz is indeed a farmer, my kind of farmer, a Growing a Greener World kind of farmer, and the very kind we need more of than ever before.
Disclosure: This post was written as part of the Progressive Apron Project, helping tell the story of people and their initiatives making progress towards a greater good. I have been compensated as a contributor to this project, but the thoughts and opinions in this post are my own.
Ida McDonald says
I too became involved in school gardens while working with special needs kids. Turned out that
more and more interest grew within the regular school population. I am an active member of
our local fall fair and kids love to enter their harvest in the Produce Section of the Fair. Blue
ribbons can start here. Cheers.
Loreen Hudson says
Great initiative! I wish there are more teachers like Stephen Ritz. This is a perfect example how the environment can change the people. One other example of it is the change of Tirana because of council’s initiative. You can watch the TED talk and learn more about this case.
rosario puello says
I love nature and would like to do something to help I love to watch your show is so impressive to see how we could help nature and our self
Betty Mckinley says
I was watching your program on my local TV Channel ” CreateTV” in Columbia MO. I didn’t get the first of the program. It was about gardening in a wooden shipping palettes. It was started about 11 am on January 4, 2015 if I could more information concerning gardening in shipping palettes I would appreciate it very much. Thank you Betty
Joe Lamp'l says
Hi Betty. You will find an abundance of information on this, including a link to the video you saw about building the pallet garden here: http://www.ggwtv.com. That’s our website. Simply type “pallets” into the search field at the top right of the home page and hit enter. It will bring up all the information we’ve written and featured using pallets.
Claudia Arias says
Muchisimas gracias Joe Lamp’l es una historia muy hermosa y todos sabemos que ensenarles a nuestros jovenes a tener una vida mas sana te da una vida mas feliz y en estos tiempos dificiles es mucho mas importante, me facinaria aprender a hacer esto para dejarles algo expectacular a mis siguientes generacion, gracias.
Joe, I am hungry for these kinds of projects. I grew up in the Bronx and left as soon I could. Never to return. Ever. I went as far away as I could. The fact that someone could create something as hopeful as this is more miraculous than most people will ever know. I am a teacher, teaching the same kinds of kids. I want more programming like this. More projects like this that I could initiate. Could your organization team up with NSTA (National Science Teachers) and FFA (Future Farmers of America) and reach out to teachers who want to add some hope in their classrooms?
Joe Lamp'l says
Gosh Jacquie. Your idea is great and I wish we had more resources to do things just as you are proposing. But the reality is, we are maxed out on what we can do now with writing, producing and editing the series. We have a large list of noble projects deserving of some attention. We hope to take them on as able. Thanks for your suggestion and for taking the time to comment about this.
Harriet T. says
Thanks for getting these stories out. Our society needs to be reminded of the problems in many parts of our country related to food sources, not just choices.
Enjoy your site and information.
Saying Hi as a near neighbor just over the border in N. Alabama.
Joe Lamp'l says
Thanks neighbor. We agree. This is such important work that is totally doable all around the world. If it can be done in the Bronx, there’s no reason we can’t do this kind of work anywhere. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Thank you for publishing this wonderful, uplifting story! Wish there were more sites like yours doing this. Can’t thank you enough for doing what you are doing, Joe! Your podcasts and TV shows have changed my life. I am truly inspired every time I listen or watch your shows. An oasis in the desert for sure! Keep up the fantastic work! People really are responding to your message. A true ‘growing a greener world’ revolution is happening! Again, many thanks!
Thank you for publishing th
Colleen Bryant says
I have a Braden space but the weeds always take over no matter how I try to keep them out. I love your show it is so informative. Will u give me some tips ?
Joe Lamp'l says
Hi Colleen. Weeds are a fact of life, just like death and taxes. You can never prevent weeds for ever, only try and slow them down. As an organic gardening, I don’t use herbicides that could damage the soil over time. The best single tip I can offer is to use a lot of mulch. Add about 3 inches to your beds. It will do a lot to prevent new seed germination and smother some existing weeds. However, it will not prevent them forever. Birds, wind, animals, even people will carry new seeds to your beds.
The other thing to do is to try and stay ahead of the problem. If you pull weeds before they go to seed, you will do a lot to prevent thousands more take their place.
Lastly, I have several articles on my website that will give you more tips. Just type weeds in the search box and you should get the articles. Good luck.