Teaching health and hard work with urban farming

Stephen Ritz, Dean of Students at Hyde Leadership Charter School, shows off classroom-grown produce with students Jayda Polanco, Christian Salguero and Amari McKinnon.
Photo by Jaime Williams

These young sprouts are learning about healthy sprouts.

Stephen Ritz, dean of students at Hyde Leadership Charter School in Hunts Point, has brought urban farming into the classroom.

Fourth and fifth graders in a windowless classroom at the school tend to three plant towers that grow vegetables including lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes.

The project, started this year, is an effort to teach the kids about natural food and encourage healthy eating in an area with extremely high rates of obesity and other health problems, said the teacher.

“If kids grow kale, they’ll eat kale.”

Ritz saidy he believes whole heartedly that growing healthy food in the Bronx can change the future for struggling kids – “We’re harvesting hope and cultivating minds.”

Green Bronx Machine

Ritz’ urban farming mission started years ago with a box of daffodil bulbs he was sent while working at Discovery High School. The box was put behind a radiator and one day began to sprout, much to the interest of the students. That year, his students planted 25,000 bulbs across the city.

It led to he and his students taking over unused community gardens in the South Bronx and went on to installing the first green roof in the area, with attendance rates increasing dramatically.

Years later, Ritz founded the non-profit Green Bronx Machine to get more young adults involved in urban farming.

Ritz’s ideas are also implemented through JVL Wildcat Academy, a charter high school for over-aged and under-credited students with a culinary focus, which now has 20 plant towers growing 37 kinds of fruits, vegetables and herbs.

The training his students get has helped them find living wage jobs, he noted, with his kids hired across the city and country to build green roofs and green walls.

Urban farmers

“We’re growing the next generation of farmers in the South Bronx,” he said. “I’m rooted in the belief that it’s easier to grow healthy children than fix broken men.”

That’s why he brought farming into the elementary school, noting that growing plants teaches youngsters life skills including patience.

“When you teach them about nature,” he said, “you teach them about nurture.”

National attention

Because of his success in the classroom and with Green Bronx Machine, Ritz and his students have been invited across the country by other groups who want to learn from them.

His efforts also have been featured on TNT and on The Disney Channel.

Most recently he has been featured in a series of Office Depot videos called “Teachers for Change,” found at www.officedepot.com/teachers.

The big moment will come in June, he said, when a group of students from the Hyde Leadership Charter School will be visiting the White House Garden.

Reach Reporter Jaime Williams at (718) 742–3383. E-mail her at jwilliams@cnglocal.com.

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