Green Bronx Machine to receive national, prestigious social impact honor

Bronx Green Machine founder and CEO Stephen Ritz.
Photos courtesy Bronx Green Machine

Since becoming a nonprofit more than a decade ago, the Green Bronx Machine has transformed thousands of lives in the South Bronx. Recently, the organization was recognized on a national level.

On Sept. 28, Classy, a giving experience platform that enables nonprofits to connect supporters with the causes they care about, announced the 2021 Classy Award Winners and the Green Bronx Machine was selected out of more than 1,400 applications as a recipient of the prestigious Classy Award for Social Innovation – one of the largest social impact awards in the country.

Known as “America’s Favorite Teacher,” Stephen Ritz, founder of the Bronx Green Machine, is responsible for creating the first edible classroom in the world, which he has evolved into the National Health, Wellness and Learning Center at C.S. 55 in Claremont, an engaging wonderland where students and teachers grow their way. Ritz and his students have grown more than 100,000 pounds of vegetables in his South Bronx center, and in the process, he has increased school attendance from 40%-93% daily and helped provide 2,200 youth jobs in the Bronx.

Using a state-of-the-art mobile classroom kitchen and a year-round indoor teaching farm, Green Bronx Machine teaches local students about STEM and agricultural production. In 2020, even amidst the pandemic environment, Green Bronx Machine produced 5,000 pounds of vegetables, and his students have a 91% passing rate of New York State Science Exams.

“I’m most grateful to Classy for acknowledging grassroots organizations like the Green Bronx Machine,” Ritz said.

Ritz, who is the “oldest sixth-grader in the world,” has gotten his fair share of awards over the years, but told the Bronx Times he had never heard of Classy prior to receiving the award.

A lifelong Bronxite, Ritz got a teaching degree at SUNY Purchase, but as a young adult played pro basketball overseas in Europe. However, he got injured and called it quits on his athletic career deciding to return home to the Bronx. He began teaching in 1984 and the rest is history. He taught science for several years at C.S. 55 and today is the executive director of the National Health, Wellness and Learning Center.

“As I got older, I realized it’s easier to raise healthy children than to fix broken men,” he said. “For me, you can’t talk about education if you don’t talk about opportunity.”

Ritz — tall and skinny — was once a heavyset guy who ate a lot of meat, drank a gallon of soda a day and was called “the big cheese.” Today, his students are still shocked when he shows them old pictures of himself.

Green Bronx Machine Founder Stephen Ritz with his students.

While the Green Machine only became a nonprofit in 2010, Ritz has been making a difference in the South Bronx for decades.

He planted 25,000 flowers with ex-cons in 2004; a replica of his classroom was installed in the US Botanic Gardens in Washington, D.C; his curriculum is being used in hundreds of schools across the United States, and internationally from Colombia to Dubai, from Canada to Cairo and beyond.

Additionally, Ritz helped earn his school the first-ever Citywide Award of Excellence from the NYC Strategic Alliance for Health and directly attributes these results to growing vegetables in his school. The National Association of Secondary School Principals cited his work and the Green Bronx Machine as one of five national exemplars of service learning.

In an area that is known for poverty, crime, high obesity, diabetes and a “school to prison pipeline,” Ritz takes pride in what he does. Many of his former students have gone on to college, become homeowners, teachers and practice eating healthy.

“My favorite days are Mother’s Day and Father’s Day because I stay in touch with thousands of my students,” he said. “We make vegetables cool. We make schools cool.”

Even COVID-19 did not hinder Ritz and the Bronx Green Machine. He held 200 online lessons and turned the schoolyard at C.S. 55 into a supermarket, giving away bags of groceries every week. Also, when it got warm out, they had socially distanced planting days.

From creating community farms throughout the New York City Housing Authority and giving kids a lifeline for the future, Ritz knows his work is far from over.

“Here in our little corner of the South Bronx we’re trying to change the world,” he said. “There’s a myth that everyone here in the Bronx is on welfare. There are parents working two, three or four jobs. We’re proof of what is possible and community organizations matter.”

Reach Jason Cohen at [email protected] or (718) 260-4598. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter @bronxtimes and Facebook @bronxtimes.

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