The Bronx is home to many things — Yankee Stadium, the Bronx Zoo, the birth of hip-hop — and most recently, an idea powerful enough to change the world.
That powerful idea is none other than the Green Bronx Machine, but rest assured it is not your typical machine. The Green Bronx Machine is powered by none other than students with a passion for gardening healthy greens, as well as educators who spark that passion in their students.
Planted in the Bronx
The Green Bronx Machine’s most notable educator is also its founder: Stephen Ritz. Ritz is a Bronx native and can easily be identified by his exuberant energy both in and out of the classroom. Teaching at schools with some of the worst dropout rates in the country, Ritz has always been deeply committed to his students and has worked tirelessly to keep them engaged in school.
Nearly a decade ago, Ritz had a lightbulb moment that would change the trajectory of his career and students’ lives forever. When his middle schoolers accidentally stumbled upon a box of flower bulbs in his classroom, they were fascinated by their discovery and were eager to learn how to plant.
Pleasantly surprised by his students’ reaction, Stephen realized that he could better engage his students by making gardening the center of the classroom experience.
“I could teach children to read and write and do math if I put this magical garden in the middle of the classroom and built school around it,” Ritz said.
In 2013, Ritz became the first teacher in the U.S. to implement tower gardens in the classroom.
Sprouting Local Solutions
Since the introduction of tower gardens, the Green Bronx Machine has flourished into an educational and community-based organization that teaches students how to garden and consume healthier foods. Under its model, students still learn core subjects like science and math, but gardening is put at the center of teaching so that students have a more engaging and hands-on learning experience. While unconventional, the Green Bronx Machine education model has proven to be effective in training and empowering students.
“We’ve taken a formerly failing, slated-to-be-closed school that now outperforms city and statewide benchmarks in all areas,” Ritz said.
Notably, the Green Bronx Machine has not only closed education gaps in the Bronx but has also expanded to address local food insecurity as well. Today, the organization runs classroom and community gardens all throughout the Bronx, serving as a production hub for healthy greens around the Bronx community. Cory Gamble, a former student of Ritz’s and the Green Bronx Machine’s farm technician, has witnessed how the Green Bronx Machine fills an incredibly important food access gap in his community.
“That’s the main thing in the Bronx: lack of food," Gamble said. "The Bronx doesn’t really have food like that. It’s mostly junk food around here than anything else."
Ritz’s vision for the Green Bronx Machine is rooted in community empowerment and self-sufficiency. Instead of waiting for outsiders to fix the Bronx’s food deserts, Ritz is eager to make change from within, empowering the Bronx’s youth to be farmers who change the trajectory of local food insecurity.
“We at Green Bronx Machine are determined to be the light inside of our tunnel, instead of seeking light at the end of the tunnel,” Ritz said.
Rooted in Resilience
When the COVID-19 pandemic took the world by surprise, the Green Bronx Machine was already prepared to address the exacerbated food crisis in the Bronx.
“Once the COVID-19 crisis started, it was amazing that nothing fell off, and Green Bronx Machine didn’t have to readjust,” said Michaela, Ritz’s daughter who had been helping the organization deliver meals to families during the pandemic.
According to Michaela, the Green Bronx Machine worked hard to “fill in the cracks that became even more glaringly apparent in society.” With schools shutting down and healthy meals becoming more difficult to access, the Green Bronx Machine went above and beyond to ensure that their students were still learning and families were still eating. Ritz and his team hosted frequent cooking classes, even delivering ingredients to students to make sure they could participate. They also transformed their National Health and Wellness Center into a food pick-up station, in addition to hand-delivering more than 100,000 pounds of food to locals in their community.
“Without Green Bronx Machine, I don’t know if half of these kids would be eating due to COVID,” Gamble said.
When schools started opening back up again in the Bronx, the Green Bronx Machine also resumed their classroom gardening projects in a socially distant manner. In this way, the Green Bronx Machine improved students’ lives during the pandemic through three main avenues: an academic need for learning, a material need for nutritious food, and a social need for human connection.
Harvesting a Movement
The systemic issues of food insecurity and school dropout rates are not unique to the Bronx, and so the Green Bronx Machine strives to replicate these positive impacts in other communities that struggle with their same issues. With expansive success in the Bronx education system, the Green Bronx Machine has developed a curriculum model now implemented in over 500 classrooms around the U.S. and world.
What makes the Green Bronx Machine model so powerful, though, is that it isn’t just an education success story. It’s a societal success story. The Green Bronx Machine’s journey to make the Bronx a greener and healthier community shows that societal transformation is most effective and sustainable when it starts from within. Instead of employing outside food delivery to feed the Bronx, the Green Bronx Machine placed the seeds in the hands of those with the most power to change the Bronx for the better: the local youth.
Ultimately, food is the key ingredient that powers the Green Bronx Machine model, bringing together students, educators, and community members alike because nutritious food is a universal necessity of life. Food is what we all have in common, and so what the Green Bronx Machine brings to the Bronx can be brought to any community in need of healthy food.
According to Ritz, “food is the language in which society reveals itself.” And in the Bronx, the success of the Green Bronx Machine reveals that youth and education are two of the most powerful channels to bring healthy food access to some of the country’s poorest communities.
A seed of an idea planted in the Bronx, the Green Bronx Machine model now has the potential to be harvested around the world.