An evening with Stephen Ritz
Award winning educator and vertical farmer
Much like a seedling that sprouts into a fully blossoming plant, so did the audience who showed up in record numbers to hear award winning educator and urban farmer Stephen Ritz from Green Bronx Machine on Thursday, May 26th. Just a handful of attendees were present when the Marian House of Cherry Hill opened its doors at 6:00 pm. By 6:45 the hall was filled with nearly 200 eager adults and children of diverse backgrounds, waiting patiently for the much anticipated and very animated guest speaker.
Donning a big yellow foam cowboy hat and bowtie made of recycled objects, Stephen Ritz delivered an awe inspiring and engaging presentation, sharing how his use of vertical gardens in the classroom has transformed the lives of his South Bronx students, academically; emotionally, and physically.
Circling the room throughout his presentation, Ritz explained how the South Bronx, the poorest congressional district in the country, has no access to healthy, affordable food. Imagine no nearby Shop Rite, no Whole Foods, not even an Aldi’s! Just mini food marts and plenty of 99 cent fast food, fried food establishments. Couple that with the stinky, dirty odor of a sewage waste plant, a sewage pelletizing plant and four electrical plants (South Bronx is home to 40% of New York City’s waste and 100% of the Bronx’s waste) and you have an unhealthy living environment.
Proclaiming, “I am a voice for the voiceless. All lives matter,” Ritz said 37% of students in South Bronx have food insecurity and 51% of South Bronx children live in poverty. His students were overweight and unhealthy, school performance was well below average and the high school graduation rate was under 50%. All this changed when Ritz introduced vertical gardening, which provides experiential learning for students in science, math, health and nutrition. Vertical gardens and the Tower Gardens later brought in, provide students an abundance of healthy food. Portions of the food grown are used in the cafeteria for meals. Students are eating better and waistlines have decreased including Ritz’s who says he’s lost about 100 pounds since introducing the vertical gardens.
Ritz encouraged the audience to, “Occupy Your Street!” saying his fundamental belief is you shouldn’t have to leave your neighborhood, to learn, earn, and live. The students set up a local farmer’s market, transformed dank, dirty vacant lots into green parcels of land. His students now build green gardens, green roofs, green anything for wealthy residents of the Hamptons, and earn a living wage for their work.
What started out in one classroom has now grown into the Green Bronx Machine, a non profit organization and movement occupying a former library at Community School 55 in the South Bronx. Ritz has even traveled to Canada, Columbia, and states around the USA to help set up similar wellness learning centers like GBM. It is no wonder why Ritz is a top ten finalist for the Global Teacher Award.
Ritz received a standing ovation at the program’s conclusion and with rock star like fame, guests lined up afterwards to have their picture taken with Stephen Ritz and to get his signed autograph on a GBM hat or handout. It was evident from the outpouring of enthusiasm for Ritz, “Green walls can change minds and attitudes.”
Hosted by Sustainable Cherry Hill’s Green Health and Garden Task Forces