Stephen Ritz On Transforming The Bronx & Generations of Kids By Turning His Classroom Into A Farm

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“If you teach kids about nature they learn to nurture. And when children learn to nurture we as a society collectively embrace our better nature.”

Stephen Ritz


Insurgent educator Stephen Ritz is truly one of the most inspiring game changers I have ever met. A South Bronx elementary school teacher and administrator, he has faced and overcome tremendous bureaucratic, political, and socio-economic odds to catapult generations of young, underprivileged at-risk students to unimaginable academic success and upwardly mobile employment — all while simultaneously reclaiming and rebuilding the Bronx from the inside out.

The modality leveraged to serve this end? Food. Specifically, growing food.

The personification of triple bottom line values and a staunch advocate of project-based, experiential learning, it all began when Stephen accidentally began growing plants in his classroom. The unexpected result was a level of student engagement even this maverick educator could not have predicted. So what began by fluke soon became Stephen’s passion. It wasn’t long before his Bronx classroom featured the first indoor edible wall in the entire New York City Department of Education — a wall that routinely generates enough produce to feed healthy meals to 450 students while also training the youngest nationally certified workforce in America.

Stephen’s classroom farm would soon expand, both in the classroom and out, spreading across a community in desperate need for healthy food options. Under his spirited leadership and the tireless efforts of his student and community growers, vacant lots and rooftops across the Bronx — fairly characterized as an urban food desert — have been literally transformed, now boasting bountiful gardens that have produced more than 30,000 pounds of vegetables. Food that feeds his students and the greater borough at large.

In the Bronx public school system, student attendance and graduation rates are historically abysmal. But Stephen’s passion and engagement with his students resulted in attendance skyrocketing from a mere 40 percent to 93 percent daily. Not to mention it helped create 2,200 youth jobs. And now he is committed to building the first ever independently financed National Health, Wellness and Biodiversity Center in a 100+ year old reclaimed Bronx public school library.

The staggering success of Stephen’s non-traditional teaching methods have captured the world’s attention. His work has been featured in Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, ABC, CNN, NBC, NPR and beyond. Accolades include being one of three Americans named a 2015 Top Ten Finalist for the prestigious Global Teacher Prize– teaching’s Nobel Prize. He received the United States EPA Award for transforming mindsets and landscapes in New York City. And in 2014 he and his 4th and 5th grade students were invited to, and fêted by, none other than the White House.

After viewing Stephen’s super inspiring TEDxManhattan Talk, ranked in the Top 25 Food / Education TED Talks of all time, I knew I had to have him on the show.

Stephen followed this up with another stunning TEDx Talk:

And if that’s not enough, this beautiful Upworthy short on Stephen and his work is sure to bring a tear to your eye:

Stephen Ritz is the teacher you wish you had. The teacher every kid deserves. A true paradigm breaker, he sets the pace for future generations of teachers to come. Today we sit down to talk about:

  • how he lost over 100 pounds
  • a snapshot of life in the Bronx
  • the battle to overcome food desert obstacles
  • using community to transform communities
  • empowering youth via project based learning
  • vertical farming & tower garden technology
  • the growing locavore movement
  • creating garden to café programs
  • systematic versus incremental change
  • how to be accessible, consistent & present for kids
  • why asking for permission is begging for denial, and
  • why his mantra is “Si se puede!”

Prepare yourself, because this guy’s got enough energy to power a city. I guess that’s why they call him the Green Bronx Machine.

It’s my honor and privilege to bring Stephen’s story to you today. If you are moved as I am, and it feels right to you, I implore you to consider donating to his most worthy cause.

I sincerely hope you enjoy our discussion & look forward to your thoughts in the comments section below.

Peace + Plants,

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SHOW NOTES

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Visit the “for-purpose” organization with charitable status called the Green Bronx Machine

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Production, music & sound design by Tyler Piatt. Additional production by Chris Swan. Graphic art by Shawn Patterson.

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