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Gardening for Good: What’s Growing in the South Bronx?

An Oasis in a Food Dessert

Amidst the decrepit facades and shot-out windows of one of the largest conglomerations of public housing in North America stands a century-old building, notable not for its well-kept exterior - there are in fact wires and scaffolding surrounding it – but for its spots of vibrant green in a sea of dreary brown. The building, originally a school for the children of the white middle class, is now home to CS 55, a District 7 New York City public school in the South Bronx. Given its location in the worst district in the city, the school’s flourishing gardens and innovative National Health, Wellness, and Learning Center are surprising features to say the least. They are the results of the relentless efforts of educator turned new-age superhero in a bowtie, Stephen Ritz, who, through sheer will and unbridled enthusiasm, has transformed CS 55 from another underperforming school to an oasis in a food desert.

Though New York City public housing accounts for nearly half a million people, which would make it the thirty-first largest city in the United States, it remains remarkably underserved. In Stephen’s area of the Bronx, the closest subway stop is eighteen blocks away, there are no grocery stores in sight, and 37% of the population faces food insecurity. Attempts to bring healthy food options and non-fast food vendors to the area have failed because, with 41.1% of families supported by the state and 59% of children in the district living in poverty, it is difficult to get kids to go to school, let alone to buy and eat vegetables. With circumstances as they are, it comes as no surprise that the Bronx produces the least reports of good health and the lowest levels of educational attainment of any of the five boroughs.

What does come as a surprise is the success Stephen has had at CS 55, where attendance has risen from 40% to 93% and entire classes pass the state exams. Such results can only be understood within the context of the whirlwind of chatter and fervency that is Stephen Ritz.

Meeting El Capitan

Though the distance between Manhattan and the Bronx is not that great physically speaking, the two could not be farther apart in terms of cultural experience. Heading north to the latter, the bustling streets, raucous trains, and ubiquitous commerce of its wealthier counterpart are left behind. In their place stand relatively quiet and heavily residential stretches of projects, and in the middle of them, CS 55. On my visit to the school with other members of the Carol Cone On Purpose (CCOP) team, the setting felt almost desolate, until Stephen, in bright yellow-green shoes and a wooden superman bowtie, burst through the doors and unlocked the gate to the garden.

I had heard a lot about Stephen from Carol Cone. His Green Bronx Machine, a program that integrates plant-based learning into the school curriculum, has been a part of CCOP’s Idea Accelerator for some time, but it was still extraordinary to experience the full scope of his brainchild and magnanimity in person. While Stephen went through the garden with us, injecting everyone with his inspired animation as he picked vegetables for a neighborhood woman and detailed the struggles of the community, he was just doing what he does everyday – teaching, giving, and innovating.

When he first arrived at CS 55 ten years ago, it was the most violent middle school in New York City. The average parent was sixteen years old at the birth of his or her child, a circumstance that created violence both at home and at the school, and students were showing up in bad health, if at all. Stephen, no stranger to the community or the symptoms of obesity, having suffered two heart attacks and diabetes himself, set out to address the problem at its roots. Rather than focusing, as too many others had, on topical solutions, El Capitan, as his students call him, sought to create a healthier and happier community through audience-centric education.

It is not enough, Stephen realized, to bring vegetables to people with no understanding of health or to preach the importance of abstaining from violent behavior to a community accustomed to gangs. His garden and learning center have accomplished what no other proposed solution has been able to because El Capitan created a program that integrates the solution into the community rather than just applying it topically.

The Mechanics

The Green Bronx Machine (GBM) is a three-pronged program consisting of school-based gardens, a health clinic, and a National Health, Wellness, and Learning Center. Open to students and members of the community, the machine can provide free bags of produce to people in need every week, as well as the knowledge and resources for growing and preparing fresh food. By educating the community on why healthy food is essential and how to produce it, Stephen aims to improve not just the availability of food, but also the way people are thinking about it.

Stephen also uses the Green Bronx Machine to assuage the violence surrounding the school. He employs the help of elderly community members, who head 37.6% of households in the projects and discourage bad behavior with their very presence while gardening outside of the school. GBM’s health clinic also addresses the problem of violence by preventing parents from sending their children to school with signs of physical injury, in addition to managing the health issues that arise from poor diets at home, of course.

Luckily for the Bronx residents that benefit from it, all facets of the program are sustainable throughout the year thanks to its linchpin: the National Health, Wellness, and Learning Center. As the heart of Stephen’s operation, the center serves as a tower garden facility, kitchen, and classroom. It keeps the good growing year-round by enabling students and community members to grow and prepare food with Stephen as their guide during any season. It is also capable of going net positive for food and energy and entirely mobile, allowing Stephen to manipulate it to fit the needs of the community and to replicate it in the future, which he greatly hopes to do.

Stephen is already taking steps towards scaling the Green Bronx Machine. Currently, he is working on a curriculum that would enable other educators around the country to reproduce his model and bring good food to neighborhoods in need. It is little wonder that Stephen has been named a Top 10 Teacher Globally and a Top 50 Teacher Nationally for the work that he is doing above and beyond the call of duty. As more recognition comes to Stephen and his blossoming program, it will be very exciting to see what he can achieve in the purpose space and how it is received in other cities across the country.


Interview with Stephen Ritz, 7/26/16


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