Stephen Ritz noticed the kids in his class were getting heavier and heavier. Three generations had pass through his Bronx classroom; obesity and diabetes were on the rise.
He needed to engage his students, to make them responsible for their health and education.
He started with a simple class project – they would build an edible wall. The kids sorted seeds, planted the wall and it grew. They named themselves the Green Bronx Machine, and adopted the slogan “We are Amer-i-CANS.” They got support from Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., and people noticed.
The kids were invited to Boston to install an edible wall on the George Hancock building. They were invited to South Hampton to install green roofs. They came back to the Bronx, installed more living walls and began earning real green.
The students got licensed and bonded in trade, they now build affordable housing, and their gardens easily produce 25,000 pounds of vegetables a year. They donate some of their fresh vegetables to seniors. “Brook Park feeds hundreds of people without a food stamp or a fingerprint,” says Ritz.
When Mr. Ritz’s kids became the first in their family to have bank accounts he taught them how to give money as well as receive. They bought gifts for the homeless.
Beyond food and financial security the Green Bronx Machine project affected the kids performance in the classroom. Ritz’s class went from 40% to 93% attendance, and the entire first cohort in the program all went to college. As Mr. Ritz says, “When you expand their palates you expand their vocabulary.” And now they also like eating their vegetables, “My kids play cow all the time.”
Mr. Ritz hopes that his reach exceeds his grasp. The Green Bronx Machine has invigorated the Bronx economy and environment, feeds the hungry, and trains workers. The kids are finally getting healthy by eating their vegetables. Stephen Ritz has exceeded his grasp.
In a district where they still say, and believe in “Si se puede” they are, they really are, making it happen.