Green Bronx Machine - a garden programme with a real growth mindset...

Green Bronx Machine is a school garden programme credited with transforming pupils’ life chances. Simon Creasey speaks to its creator, who explains how growing food gives children themselves the opportunity to bloom
20th September 2019, 12:03am
The Garden Programme With A Growth Mindset


Green Bronx Machine - a garden programme with a real growth mindset...

Like many great ideas, the one that changed Stephen Ritz’s life came about by accident. He was a special education teacher by training and following a family tragedy he decided to work closer to home. He signed up at Walton High School in the South Bronx, New York City, not knowing much about its background. The school later closed and Ritz found himself working for Discovery High School on the same campus.

“Lo and behold, I had picked the most dysfunctional high school in all of New York City at the time,” recalls Ritz. “Just to give you some context: it had a 17 per cent graduation rate and 256 felonies annually in the building. We had 48 security officers in this school. I was asked to teach science to a group of 17 over-age, under-credited children and I had never taught science in my life.”

Rather than this career move proving a disaster, though, it led to Ritz becoming the founder of a worldwide phenomenon called Green Bronx Machine, a school garden programme that has enriched the lives of thousands of children thanks to his “edible curriculum”, which has been rolled out in schools across the globe. That turnaround came, as stated above, entirely by accident.

Given his lack of science know-how and school resources, Ritz decided to put out a request for help on the internet, expecting someone to send him some microscopes or telescopes that he could use. A few weeks later, a box arrived at the school addressed to him. Ritz excitedly raced to collect it, but on opening it he discovered it was full of small round objects that looked like onions. Feeling thoroughly dejected, he took the box back to his classroom, put it under a radiator and completely forgot about it. Then, a couple of weeks later, trouble flared up.

“I had this skinny little kid who was teasing this huge girl with tattoos and piercings. She gets up and bolts towards him and I’m like, ‘This is the end of my career,’” says Ritz. “Well, this skinny kid goes and reaches under the radiator and I start to freak out, thinking, ‘Here comes a weapon,’ but instead he comes out with a handful of flowers and starts waving them at the girl.

“The whole class started laughing, everything broke up, the girl was spellbound. There was no fight and it turned out that in the box were hundreds of flowers in bloom.”

Lightbulb moment

Ritz admits that he knew nothing about gardening at the time, but despite this lack of knowledge, the incident switched on a lightbulb in his brain and that year his students went on to plant thousands of flower bulbs across New York City as part of a programme to commemorate the events of 11 September 2001.

Off the back of that initial foray, he created a school workforce development programme that was rooted in environmental remediation, landscaping and parks maintenance.

Then he had another eureka moment. At the time, Ritz weighed around 300lb (21st) and had become diabetic because he was “eating the same crap that the kids were eating”. An invitation to visit Whole Foods Market - the high-end American grocery store chain - changed all that.

“It was right then and there that I realised, ‘Wow, we can grow plants and food,’” Ritz says. “So we switched from ornamental gardening to edible gardening and we started doing community gardens and started growing our own food.”

He went on to create the first “edible classroom” in the US, growing food indoors among the desks and chairs, which earned him an invitation to what he thought was the National Indoor Gardening Championship.

“It turned out that it was the Indoor Marijuana Show,” exclaims Ritz. “My students thought I was the coolest teacher in the world, I almost had a heart attack, but it was there that I started learning about new technologies like [growing] towers and I started bringing those technologies to the school.”

The rest - as Ritz says - is history. He was soon growing food right across the school, creating edible walls via vertical planters that provided fresh produce to the disadvantaged pupils and their families.

Of the original group of 17 students he taught, all of them went on to graduate high school - an achievement Ritz is incredibly proud of. Attendance rates at the school grew from 40 per cent to 93 per cent daily, with 100 per cent graduation rates and 100 per cent passing rate. Ritz puts much of that down to the edible classroom giving pupils a reason to turn up and something to nurture.

“So that was awesome sauce,” says Ritz.

The programme also earned him a lot of media attention and a book deal. But Ritz realised that he could have even more of an impact if he started working with younger children, and so set out to develop a whole-school programme.

“I believe it’s easier to raise healthy children than fix broken men,” he says.

So Green Bronx Machine was born. Ritz transformed an underutilised library at Community School 55, South Bronx into the National Health, Wellness and Learning Centre. The area the school is in has some of New York State’s highest per-capita rates of childhood obesity, diabetes, heart disease, chronic unemployment, food insecurity and food stamp recipients - but thanks to Ritz’s “green curriculum” model, which is fully integrated into the core curriculum, students get to grow, eat and share their vegetables with their family and the local community.

Each week, hundreds of bags of groceries are sent home with the students, while 100 bags of leafy greens are distributed weekly to local senior citizens who are food insecure and recovering from cancer. In addition, a small farmers’ market held in the school sells fresh fruit and vegetables to parents at “way below” market cost.

Ritz also established a garden-to-café programme, which sees food grown in the school used in the cafeteria. Additionally, the school takes part in farmers’ markets at the premises of corporate businesses where they sell the food at above market value. All the money raised from these ventures is ploughed back into the project; Ritz also donates the profits from his best-selling book The Power of the Plant to the project.

‘Win, win, win’

The impact on students who participate in Green Bronx Machine has been enormous - not just attendance and academic improvements but changes in behaviour and the way the pupils approach life. Ritz cites the example of a 2nd grade (Year 3) class at the school that raised $60 from the sale of fruit and vegetables and had a lengthy discussion about how to spend it.

“Some wanted pizza; some wanted ice cream. They said, ‘Mr Ritz would never allow us to do that’. So we wound up buying school supplies, more seeds and a therapy bunny named Truffles who eats all the leftover scraps, poops and we get to use the fertiliser. So it’s win, win, win.”

He says that the key to successfully implementing a project like this is allowing children to make decisions so they are involved and engaged.

“We’re growing food, but what we’re really growing is children and opportunities and a sense of community and pride and civic engagement as well as empathy, compassion and hope,” he says.

It helps, too, if the school has a project-based learning curriculum, he explains, as it is what you do with the garden in terms of learning that can make the biggest impact.

“I’m not a school garden programme,” he explains. “I wrap schools around an indoor academic learning garden. Yes, I have a garden; yes, I’m in schools - but I am a whole school education programme. I’m literally an all-you-can-eat buffet of educational opportunity and that is a game-changer.”

Crucially, Ritz believes the model he has developed is highly replicable because the start-up costs are low. As a result, he believes any school could establish its own programme.

“It happens indoors, so it uses 90 per cent less water, 90 per cent less space [than outdoor gardens], it’s regardless of seasonality and there is no loss of instructional time,” he argues. “Children will never be well read if they’re not well fed, so giving them access to healthy, fresh food in school where they need it, where so many of our children and particularly children in marginalised communities get most of their meals is critical.”

The hands-on, project-based learning Green Bronx Machine classroom curriculum that Ritz developed - which can be purchased from the non-profit organisation’s website - features lesson plans that focus on science, maths and language, and can easily extend to technology, history, art and cooking. To date, the curriculum has been rolled out to numerous schools across the US and globally.

And it’s going to get bigger. Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, one of the biggest healthcare providers in the US, is rolling the curriculum out to 42 US cities in 19 states over the course of the next 12 months. Ritz is also actively looking for partners around the world to sign up for the curriculum.

Clearly, such an approach is not for everyone - in more traditionalist schools, it is difficult to see how edible walls and project-based learning would work alongside silent corridors and direct instruction. However, for those willing to give it a go, Ritz’s results are certainly impressive. And he promises benefits for teachers, too: he has shed the pounds and become a bit of a gardening connoisseur.

“Ten years ago, I couldn’t tell you 10 kinds of fruits and vegetables. Today, I grow 37 types of fruits and vegetables indoors,” he says.

But it is the benefits to pupils that keeps him going.

“At the end of the day, the best farmer I am is a people farmer. What we’re growing here is people.”

Simon Creasey is a freelance journalist

This article originally appeared in the 20 SEPTEMBER 2019 issue under the headline “Welcome to the all-you-can-eat curriculum buffet”

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