This New York teacher’s urban gardens feed students’ minds

Stephen Ritz says his students are growing their way into healthy ways of living. (Courtesy of Green Bronx Machine)

A few years ago, teacher Stephen Ritz worked with students as they planted a garden at Discovery High School in the Bronx, New York. As he did, new ideas about teaching took root in his mind.

He was teaching some of the country’s most disadvantaged students. And they were enjoying it. Perhaps gardening could give his students enthusiasm for other types of learning and even offer them avenues to make money.

Ritz became convinced that gardening could transform “mindsets and landscapes.”

It took a little while for his ideas to blossom, but in 2009, Ritz led his students as they took their garden indoors. They designed, built and operated New York’s first indoor living wall — panels of plants, grown vertically under LED lights.

The wall produced fruit and vegetables for the school’s cafeteria. It offered lessons in science, math, technology and nutrition. The students were excited. Daily attendance more than doubled.

Ritz came to believe that urban gardens and farms both fed the hungry and nurtured good citizens. “Growing food leaves an imprint on minds,” he said. He started a nonprofit called Green Bronx Machine to promote school-based farming at other schools and to train students across America to grow plants and learn new lessons from their experience.

William Yosses, a White House chef, cooks tacos with school-grown veggies with students at Benjamin Franklin School. (Courtesy of Green Bronx Machine)

Working with partners, the nonprofit has built 100 school gardens and a number of green roofs and walls.  Many students have secured after-school jobs through the skills they learned helping in these tasks. Many of Ritz’s first gardening cohort went on to college.

While Ritz set out to change the mindsets of students, he admits that he may have changed more than anyone. To become a better role model, he has shed 100 of what he calls his “too many pounds” of weight (about 45 kilograms).

Today, he teaches at Benjamin Franklin School in the Bronx and raises money to open a National Health, Wellness and Biodiversity Center in the community. Ritz wants to “build Bronx into the healthiest community in America.”

Ritz is one of 50 finalists in the 2015 edition of the $1 million Global Teacher Prize for an outstanding teacher. Often referred to as the Nobel Prize for teaching, it is open to teachers in every school in every country of the world.