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

By July 12, 2015January 19th, 202413 Comments

“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,


Listen & Subscribe on iTunes | Soundcloud | Stitcher


Connect With Stephen: Website | Facebook | Twitter

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

Background, Context & Reference:

Notable People Discussed in today’s podcast:

Related Podcasts You Might Enjoy:

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

Today’s episode is sponsored by:

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  • Very inspiring person with such high energy and passion to life and other people.

    Unfortunately only small percentage of school teachers in the world have such high energetic. And the answer is money – such a talent doesn’t want to live with government salary, that’s why they move forward and teach adults (people who can pay for their service).

    Inspire yourself and then other people will be inspired because of you!

    Rich, in the end of interview you said that you have some pdf with Core exercises. Could you please send it to me also – [email protected]

    Thanks a lot!

  • Tim Harrell says:

    WOW! I’ve heard Stephen Ritz before, but I’ve gotta say, you brought out even more of what I’ve been wanting to hear about what he’s been up to and where he’s taking #thegreenbronxmachine. Stephen’s part of the dialog is loaded with little gems of wisdom that only come from being in the trenches. His enthusiasm is infectious. His authenticity is inspirational and touching.

    Stephen is definitely in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing in his life, but eventually, I hope to see him as an even larger force in government. He’s the kind of guy, with the kind of street honed sense and wisdom that is we need getting the job done!

    Well done Rich! Thanks for bringing Stephen’s voice to a larger audience.

  • Everett says:

    I’m the sort of listener to this show who, starting on Sunday afternoon, when I know the release of a new RRP is near, refreshes the iTunes subscription list with increasing frequency and giddiness until that magical moment with the new episode appears. I may not listen to it right away. Sometimes I like to savor it just being there for awhile.

    So take my comment with a grain of salt if you like, because, although I have enjoyed some guests more than others, in general I just can’t get enough. But damn it, Rich, this is one of those episodes where I got goosebumps the whole way through. I had no idea who Stephen Ritz was, and although my parents and sister are/were all teachers, I have never had any interest in education whatsoever, aside from my own personal gain through college. Nor do I have kids, so you wouldn’t think this guy would speak to me.

    Ah, but that’s the thing. I never know when I’m going to have the goosebump moment listening to your show. This one got me. Incredible. I listened to it today while working my own vegetable and flower garden, which likely contributed to the connection, but I think it was Stephen’s simple messages projected through his gigantic energy and personality. For the last year I’ve been working towards growing and gathering 100% of my own food by the Fall of 2016. After listening to Stephan I believe I need to step up this process and grow food for my community as well. Incredible conversation.

  • Jory Howell says:

    Ha ha, I was curious about that too! =)

  • Jory Howell says:

    I loved this episode! I, like Everett, love the show though and have listened to every episode! I am inspired by Mr. Ritz and would love to be able to channel his enthusiasm! It is so amazing that he has found a way to connect to the children in his community and help create such monumental change!

  • Tommy F says:

    wow.. WOW!! Talk about enthusiasm. Stephen is a shining example of someone living authentically and being of service. He’s aligned his passion and purpose with his profession. Awesome! The world couldn’t have enough of his spirit. He loves his community and is devoted to it. So many great words flowed naturally from him.. but my favorite was, “Greatness is everywhere, we just have to unearth it and nourish it.” That’s so beautiful. Reminds me of the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Believing and Seeing hope in the midst of darkness. Working passionately and compassionately to cultivate the sprouting seeds of the hope he’s committed to see blossom.


  • Sylvo says:

    I’d never heard of Stephen Ritz before the podcast, but it was utterly inspiring and an incredible listen. We need to clone Stephen Ritz.

  • Larry Erskine says:

    I have to say that this has to be one of the most inspiring stories I’ve heard in some time. I was moved by what one person can do with a determination, focus and love to name a few characteristics Mr. Ritz has. Truly Amazing.

  • Patricia McLaren says:

    I have heard of Stephen Ritz first through TED talks and am a regular listener to your podcast, but I have to say that this one is by far my most favorite episodes of all time. There was not a second during the conversation where I was not engaged. This had arisen my first love as being a mentor back in the day when I was sailing with inner city youth from LA.

  • Terry Sullivan says:

    That’s funny. I was thinking the same thing!

  • Ben Fenton says:

    I find myself saying this to myself after just about every podcast, but I ABSOLUTELY loved this interview Rich and Julie. So inspirational, so positive, just awesome. Peace….Plants

  • Will Kriski says:

    He’s done some amazing work! Just sad that he thinks portion control is the way to go, and that rice and (whole grain) bagels are bad. I suggest he read The Starch Solution by Dr. John McDougall. Eat a lot of low calorie dense whole plant foods and you’re good to go including rice (like you know billions of lean Asians). 🙂 It’s the animal fats, oils and processed foods. Especially because he’s educating the kids.

  • Danielle Schwartz says:

    I was driving back from a rafting trip on Glen Canyon on Sunday listening to this podcast, and it could not have come at a better time. I just started my first year of teaching. Ever. I studied Local Food Systems and International Agriculture in college and was propelled to teach the minute I learned about educational inequity. But becoming a teacher has been without a doubt the hardest thing I have ever done.

    The community here has >60% unemployment rate and an approximately 60% turnover rate in school faculty. Some of the challenges my students face are high teen pregnancy rates due to lack of high quality sex education, bullying, and high levels of physical and mental health challenges including diabetes, alcoholism and high rates of suicide. I’ve just moved across the country to teach in New Mexico, a state that has been ranked 50th in the nation in “Chance for Success” indicators and has also been identified as the worst state in the nation in which to raise a child based on child well-being index factors including educational attainment. I’ve feeling extremely down and unsure about my role in being able to make a difference in my students’ lives; this talk was so inspiring and uplifting. It’s been a rough start to the year and I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times when I considered leaving. But this reminded me of exactly the kind of teacher I would like to be and gave me the courage to keep trying. Mr. Ritz has combined my passion for educational justice and food justice/sustainability, creating a place for food inside the classroom. That has always been my dream.

    I’m going to put the Tower Gardens on my Donor’s Choose account for my classroom and start bringing more plants into the classroom in general. (Though hopefully they’ll survive better than my succulents which my students stabbed with thumbtacks). I’m also hoping to do a literary unit in my class with the Young Reader’s version of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Thank you Rich Roll and Stephen Ritz for all that you do! You’re both such an inspiration and guide to me.

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