On behalf of the children, families and community of the South Bronx, I thank you for opportunity to share my story, my passion and my mission with you. One might wonder what a teacher from the South Bronx – the poorest Congressional District in America – would have to say? The answer is simple; Green Bronx Machine! Many years ago my students and I began to observe that as waistlines expanded, engagement and opportunities in school decreased, school performance suffered, and hope and ambition became minimized. Originally an after-school, alternative program for high school students, Green Bronx Machine has evolved into K-12+ model fully integrated into core curriculum. Our students grow, eat and love their vegetables en route to spectacular academic performance.
I work in classrooms with students, teachers and families each and every day. My philosophy is rooted in the simple belief that it is easier to raise healthy children than to fix broken adults. With that conviction in mind, our work has grown from a movement to a market, from one teacher working hard to being named Top Ten Finalist in the Global Teacher Prize; proof that anything is possible! We call it From Hope to the Pope, and I was honored and humbled to meet his Holiness and be featured in a recent PBS American Graduate Special.
Seeds well planted can bring a harvest of epic proportions and that is what this is truly about: growing something greater, connecting to purpose and connecting to impact. Every day is an opportunity to do something great – embrace that and cherish it! No child and no person – or corporate entities – rise to low expectations; we’ve got to set the bar as high as possible in all that we strive to do. My goal is to inspire healthy living, giving and learning everywhere I go; to move those who are “apart from” success to becoming “a part of” solutions that benefit 100% of society. We are the ones we are waiting for! We can do this!
School programs such as Farm to School and Fresh Pick change lives and benefit all; this is the work I champion every day! Every child needs to know what food is and where it comes from. Every school needs to be growing food and putting the academic concepts of growing food, health, wellness, diversity, inclusion and sustainability – and all that entails – at the heart of what they do. I don’t expect every child to be a farmer but I do expect them to read, write, do the math, science, and develop the patience, fortitude and compassion to grow it. When you teach children about nature, you teach them to nurture. When my students learn to nurture, we as a society collectively embrace our better nature! It is awesome to see those who are traditionally consumers and at the bottom of the “food chain” become producers; that is a game changer on so many levels.
Most importantly, input equals output. Given the health and nutrition crisis facing our nation and the world, this is a human rights issue on a multitude of levels. That said, here in the least likely place in the world for it to happen – a place of limited means and access, the greatest thing I have ever done to influence and impact school, personal and overall community performance / engagement is to grow vegetables in school with children aligned to content area instruction AND we get lots of yummy and healthy food along the way!
I am and forever will be an equity warrior; I urge you to join me, walk with me! We need to treat children, farmers, food and the earth with the dignity and respect they deserve and demand or we will be dealt consequences we cannot even begin to fathom. I came to you to plant some seeds! My hope is that this is the beginning of an ongoing relationship; that together, Green Bronx Machine and you can grow something greater. To that end, I open my heart, eyes and ears to you and encourage you to reach out to me at SRitz@schools.nyc.gov or firstname.lastname@example.org. For those so inclined, feel free to contribute here, we welcome and appreciate your support. Si se puede – yes we can!
Stephen Ritz, self-proclaimed CEO – Chief Eternal Optimist – of Bronx County is an educator who believes that students shouldn’t have to leave their community to live, learn and earn in a better one. His classroom routinely generates enough produce to feed 450 students while training the youngest nationally certified workforce in America. Growing more than 30,000 pounds of vegetables in the Bronx while generating extraordinary academic performance, Stephen’s work has received global acclaim. Stephen recently lost over 100 pounds via eating what he grows with students, launched Green Bronx Machine to an international audience, was just named a Top Ten Finalist for the Global Teacher Prize, awarded the 2015 BAMMY Laureate as Elementary Educator of the Year and is now building the National Health, Wellness and Learning Center in the South Bronx.