Teacher’s green machine gets Bronx growing out of poverty

Our tomatoes are this big! Stephen Ritz has every right to brag about his project.

The Bronx was once known as a deprived area, populated by low-income families no doubt living on low-grade food. No longer. An enthusiastic schoolteacher has turned the decaying New York neighborhood into a center of urban farming.

“We use underutilized urban spaces like parking lots and abandoned buildings,” explains Stephen Ritz, founder of the Green Bronx Machine. “We grow fruit and vegetables, using no fossil fuels, while helping people get healthy and creating jobs for underprivileged youths. Urban gardening is edible, successful, profitable and replicable.”

Ritz, a special education teacher in the South Bronx, started the Green Bronx Machine 10 years ago as a way of teaching his students useful skills.  Since then Ritz and his army of young urban farmers have produced more than 11 tons of vegetables. “It’s phenomenally easy,” says Ritz. “We take over abandoned spaces and grow vegetables on walls and rooftops. By growing crops vertically, you need very little soil and water.”

For Ritz, the motivation is getting his students — most of whom are homeless — onto a successful path in life. They work on the urban farms, learning job skills that are applicable in many sectors, while eating healthy and staying out of trouble. Since the launch of the Green Bronx Machine, the attendance rate among Ritz’s students has jumped from 40 to 93 percent. “This is a ticket to the middle class,” notes Ritz. The Green Bronx Machine provides teenagers with paid after-school jobs.

But even for cities with well-fed children, vertical farming presents a huge opportunity. “It’s a way of producing more food per square meter”, explains Michel Pimbert, director of Sustainable Agriculture, Biodiversity and Livelihoods at the U.K.-based International Institute for Environment and Development. “And it’s the most useful in cities. In order to reduce our carbon footprint, cities will have to produce food again.”

Steve Ritz’s students now sport slimmer waistlines, and soon other New Yorkers will do the same: the Green Bronx Machine is expanding. For new urban farmers Ritz particularly recommends tomatoes, eggplant, mint and broccoli. His favorite crop? “Organic citizens.”


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