By Waliyyah and the AMY Northwest Healthy Bulldog staff | We heard him before we saw him. Even though we were half asleep at 8:30 on a recent Monday morning, Stephen Ritz was WIDE awake. He appeared on a Zoom call wearing a cheese hat and talking really fast.
When asked what he does, his list was lengthy. He ultimately settled on this description: “I am a human exclamation point.” Mr. Ritz’s energy was evident and unmatched by anyone we know.
He heads the National Health, Wellness, and Learning Center at Community School 55 in New York City. He is also the founder and “spiritual backbone” of the Green Bronx Machine, which he started as a teacher at the elementary school in 2004. They turned an abandoned lot near the school into a garden.
The Green Bronx Machine now has programs in 675 schools across the United States as well as in seven other countries, including Egypt, Dubai, and Qatar. The program’s curriculum centers on gardening.
“We grow vegetables,” Mr. Ritz says. “Our vegetables grow students. Our students grow schools, and our schools grow happy, healthy, resilient community children who are thriving in school and eating their fruits and vegetables.”
Like most gardeners, they grow vegetables by planting seeds in soil outdoors. But they also grow crops indoors using a special growing system called a Tower Garden. Tower Gardens are aeroponic garden systems, which means the plants are fed by a nutrient mist rather than through soil, according to Juice Plus, the company that sells Tower Gardens.
Mr. Ritz says the Tower Gardens are “great” food-producing devices and “really cool” technology. And they are “perfect” to use in schools because you can use them year-round. They don’t need a lot of water or space, he says.
The Green Bronx Machine produces more than 10,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables per year for local residents. They grow the food on two acres of land and multiple large aeroponic systems. They even have a farm at Yankee Stadium. And they donate the food to their school community and to several hundred local residents. In the summer, to help grow all the food, the organization employs six teenagers and young adults.
Mr. Ritz says his ultimate goal is simple: “To inspire healthy living, to inspire healthy learning, to get children to eat better, to learn how their food is produced, where their food comes from, how we can grow food, how we can minimize our imprint and impact on the environment and be kinder to ourselves and the planet. We believe from our humble corner of the globe, we just might change the world.”
“I think that when children grow healthy food they eat healthy food,” Mr. Ritz says. “When they get to see it and experience it and taste it and touch it and sell it and cook with it, they tend to use it more.”
Mr. Ritz and the Green Bronx Machine are part of what’s called the locally grown movement. The movement “is the push to eat food that is grown and harvested nearby to where it is purchased,” according to a 2022 article on EcoWatch, an environmental news website. The food is grown with fewer chemicals, requires less transportation, and helps support local farmers.
AMY Northwest Healthy Bulldog staff members are in eighth grade.