Speaker shares success stories of Bronx-based student farming program

Guest speaker Stephen Ritz answers audience questions after his lecture, entitled “Farming for the Future: Investing in Your Community To Change the World,” on Tuesday in Van Meter Auditorium. Ritz spoke on his eff orts with the “Green Bronx Machine,” a sustainable farming initiative for public school students in the Bronx. His talk was part of the annual Mary E. Hensley Lecture Series sponsored by the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences. Brandon Carter/HERALD

Anna Lawson

People filed into Van Meter Hall on Tuesday evening to listen to a speaker who has changed not just the lives of his students, but the city they live in as well. 

Stephen Ritz is a teacher in the South Bronx in New York City who is giving students opportunities for academic success through the rebuilding of the Bronx. Ritz believes students shouldn’t have to leave their neighborhood to live, learn and earn.

His lecture focused on how important it is to teach people that they are capable of growing their own food, regardless of their income levels. 

“I’m not a farmer,” Ritz said. “I like to say I’m a people farmer.”

Ritz’s program, Green Bronx Machine,  trains the youngest nationally-certified workforce in America to grow produce for themselves and others in their community. His students earn living wages while on their way to graduation. 

Ritz and his students have grown more than 300,000 pounds of vegetables in the Bronx. Ritz said this has led to better academic performances from the kids. 

“In the past 40 years, kids are getting fatter, way fatter, and kids are getting sicker, way sicker,” Ritz said. “That’s not healthy for my kids or anyone else’s kids around the nation.”

Somerset senior Amanda Hartle attended the event to learn new information for her future job as an educator. 

“I want to learn different instructional strategies and be able to use them in a classroom,” she said. 

Ritz’s Bronx classroom hosts the first indoor edible wall in the New York City Department of Education. This wall of produce grows enough food to feed 450 students.

“For me, it’s simple — it starts with seeds,” he said. “My students, my kids, are my seeds. They come to school and they love these plants so much. We pulled up six acres of black tops around the city.”

Ritz said one of his lessons he teaches promotes a mindset of being able to change the world. All it takes is taking responsibility for yourself, your goals and the world around you. 

Ritz said his work with students has moved attendance at his school from 40 to 93 percent and also helped to fund and create 2,200 youth jobs. 

“It’s not only where we live, it’s in other communities,” he said. “My kids started installing walls for wealthy and privileged people, and in hospitals and community centers. They created inspirational and aspirational places to go. We’re sending kids who are on food stamps home every week with fresh produce.”

Locals from the Bowling Green community also came out to witness his positive energy and story.

Bowling Green resident Shannon Mills said she wanted to find out how Ritz’s work in the Bronx could apply to personalized learning. 

 “I want to see how it would transfer to rural Kentucky,” she said. 

Ritz told the audience the idea that consumers are the true sustainers of the world is no longer true.

“The real reality is that sustainers are the new consumers,” he said. “Sustainability should not be the endgame. I don’t want sustainable. I want a transformation. I want inspiration.”

Ritz said he wants the initiative to be completely inclusive.

“Together, we can all prosper,” he said. “For me, simply put, the bottom line is this: I am not willing to accept the things I cannot change. I am going to change the things I cannot accept.”

Ritz and his program have been awarded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Award for transforming mindsets and landscapes in New York City, as well as the ABC Above and Beyond Award and the 2012 Chevrolet National Green Educator Award. Ritz’s school has earned the first Citywide Award of Excellence from the NYC Strategic Alliance for Health. 

Ritz was recently announced as a national Green Apple Education Ambassador for the U.S. Green Building Council. 

“When the kids from the poorest congressional district in America can install these walls, that for me is a true ‘si se puede’ moment,” he said. 

“Si se puede” is a Spanish phrase that translates to “yes, we can.” Mantras like these and his aforementioned belief in being able to change the world show through in his dedication to his students.

“My kids are feeding themselves in ways they can’t imagine. These are happy kids and happy families,” he said. “I want every kid in America, no matter if they live on blacktop or next to an abandoned building, to understand that they can grow their own food.”

Ritz said that most importantly, love and compassion make the most difference in students’ lives.

“The world has no compassion, but we as humans do,” he said. “This is our moment, and here in Kentucky and across the nation we need to go from a nation of red states and blue states to a nation of green states.”