When you combine education, job training and entrepreneurial skills, food production, and community enhancement, and throw in a little food activism and awareness of the health/diet connection, great things can happen, as educator and inspirational community activist Stephen Ritz has shown.
It’s one thing to take kids from average middle class backgrounds, living in suburbia, and introduce them to gardening and food production as an adjunct to their classroom experience, but it’s another thing entirely to do so in the south Bronx, where kids live in one of the poorest, most disadvantaged, communities in the US. But thanks to the hard work and dedication of people such as Ritz, and his Green Bronx Machine, at-risk youth are learning to not only grow vegetables and herbs right in their neighborhoods and classrooms, but are also gaining valuable experience, training, and job skills by working in an up-and-coming industry, urban farming.
It’s not that big of a stretch for me to teach my kids about where their food comes from, or how it grows, because they’ve grown up knowing all about gardening, and community supported agriculture, and farmers markets, but that’s probably more of an exception rather than the rule, especially in urban areas, where there are not only fewer opportunities to do so, but where the effects of living in these food deserts also leads to serious health issues, such as obesity and diabetes.
So when I learned about the work being done by Ritz and his programs, and how learning about caring for plants and growing food for their classmates and neighbors has led to a much brighter future for everyone involved, it struck me that if he can do it in the south Bronx, then those of us living and working in other, more affluent or progressive, areas, can do it as well, helping to grow better outcomes and build stronger and more resilient communities.
“Green Bronx Machine was born of the belief that we are all AMER-I-CANS! Together, we can grow, re-use resources and recycle our way into new and healthy ways of living; complete with self sustaining local economic engines. Inclusively and collectively, each and every member of our society offers a unique perspective with unlimited potential. Together, we can move those who are “apart from” society to become “part of” the driving force behind new solutions benefiting all of us.”
The idea for the Green Bronx Machine came, as many ventures do, from an unexpected angle, when someone sent Ritz a box of daffodil bulbs, which neither he (not being a gardener), nor his kids, knew what to do with. After being stuck behind a radiator in his classroom, for lack of a better place to put them, the daffodils began growing and blooming, at which point the kids in his class got some wild ideas about what to do with them (the boys wanted to give them to the girls for favors, and the girls wanted to give them to other girls, and all of the kids wanted to sell them for money).
Ritz and his class ended up cleaning up a struggling community garden, and planting some 15,000 daffodil bulbs there, which made him realize that he was onto something good, and was the start to his Green Teen Project. An effort by Ritz’ classroom to grow more plants and food in a vacant lot, while a worthwhile endeavor, was fraught with difficulties, as the produce tended to disappear when it was ripe, but a connection he made with people at Green Living Technologies, which used ‘living walls’ grown with LED lights, gave him the ability to move these gardens inside the classrooms and schools, where they could grow food, as well as hope, for these kids.
His group of students, most of whom were marginal or homeless students with criminal backgrounds or learning disabilities, or both, ended up becoming more engaged in school, and wanting to come to class, and the most promising of them were able to get training and be certified in urban farming technology and green building, which led them to taking on private commissions for green walls and roofs.
By collaborating with other local organizations, the Green Bronx Machine has now built over 100 school gardens around New York, which produce food for not only school cafeterias, but also for food pantries and shelters, while also teaching the students about science and math and business, and giving them a leg up for their own future.
Part of what I find inspiring about the story of the Green Bronx Machine, other than the obvious benefits of engaging kids in growing their own food, is that it’s not a top-down solution that imposes a solution on a situation from the outside, but rather an inclusive and bottom-up initiative that can bring people together for the common good. As Ritz says, it’s an “us” moment.
“We can come together around this. This is an “us” moment. As a parent, local resident, educator, and citizen, the intention behind all I do is simple: It is easier to raise healthy children than to fix broken men.” – Ritz
Here’s Ritz’ inspiring TEDx talk, which I dare you to watch without getting goosebumps and running right out and starting your own version of this transformational program in your own neighborhood:
To find out more about the Green Bronx Machine, see their website, their page on the Apron Project site, their Twitter feed, or Facebook page, or check out Ritz’ website. If you’d like to start something similar in your area, Green Bronx Machine, which is a 501c3 non-profit, also offers educational and consulting services.
[Disclosure: This post was written as part of Progressive’s 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.]