Nine years ago someone sent Bronx high school teacher Stephen Ritz a box of spring bulbs. “I didn’t know what to do with them, so I stuck them behind a radiator, and they got forced”–meaning they sprouted into bloom from the heat. That accidental sprout was the germ of an idea that has rocketed Ritz and his students into new lives of growing hundreds of thousands of pounds of fruit and vegetables, operating farmers’ markets in food deserts, learning science, improving their health, getting certified to build mobile urban farms and green roofs for A-list clients from Rockefeller Center to the Hamptons, earning a living wage, and transforming their neighborhood, all in the poorest congressional district in America.
The hyperkinetic, self-described “world’s oldest sixth grader,” Ritz only has one speed: warp. As he tells it, he originally started a garden on vacant land, but his kids’ tomatoes kept getting stolen. Seeking a safer program indoors, he connected with George Irwin of Green Living Technologies, an upstate New York company with a design for a “mobile urban wall unit” that could grow food indoors with LED lights–enough to feed all 450 kids in the school at harvest time.
His kids were almost all classified as special education and English Language learners. Their backgrounds included from foster care, homelessness, and the criminal justice system. Set afire by Ritz’s Green Bronx Machine, they started coming to class, passing their Regents exams, and many more went on to college. Irwin trained Ritz’s most promising students for national certification in urban farming technology and green building, enabling them to take on large and small private commissions all around the Northeast.
Working with partners including Majora Carter’s Sustainable South Bronx and The Point, they built over 100 school gardens around New York and donated some of the produce to food pantries. The curriculum Ritz developed, integrating everything from math to science to free enterprise, was adopted at the State University of New York and elsewhere. In a neighborhood plagued with big trucks, high asthma rates, power plants, and more, his school was recognized as the greenest in the city.
Ritz’s program hasn’t always been in the roses. After a this February brought notoriety to the Green Bronx Machine, his principal at Discovery High School shut the farm down. Ritz wouldn’t discuss the reasons why and the principal didn’t talk to the press at the time. But he’s made a new start.
In the last year, Ritz has walked the talk of healthy living by losing over 100 pounds. He’s spoken about Green Bronx Machine all over the country. And he’s started over this fall as the dean of students and director of community partnerships at a charter school in Hunts Point called Hyde Leadership Academy. There, his urban farming program will be integrated from the roof down, and in K-12 classrooms across the entire school for the first time. On Monday, December 10, Ritz will be among ten teachers nationwide honored with the Chevrolet Green Educator Award. “It’s not about farming, it’s about literacy. Health. Wellness. Vocational aspiration,” Ritz says. “I’m the luckiest guy on the planet.”