In the midst of New York City’s South Bronx—a place traditionally rife with gang activity, poverty and crime—has sprung up a thriving, contributive population of young people. They are greening and beautifying neighborhoods, growing healthy food and providing it to people who would never otherwise see it, let alone eat it, while they themselves are becoming remarkable examples of success. This is the Green Bronx Machine—led by Stephen Ritz, one very inspiring man.
“We are growing ourselves into a whole new economy in the bullet field, battlefield and plastic-waste field of the South Bronx,” Ritz told Organic Connections. “We’re proving that we can grow food profitably, efficaciously, and more importantly, integrate it into our lives in ways that benefit all.
“Green Bronx Machine was born out of the belief that we can all succeed. If you teach those who are traditionally apart from success and make them a part of success, together we can all prosper. We’re sitting on the biggest opportunity for us in the South Bronx—growing, resourcing and recycling our way into a whole new economy.”
Beginnings in Severe Challenge
While his influence is being felt throughout and now well beyond the Bronx, Ritz is first and foremost a teacher. It was a major challenge placed before him in that capacity that was the genesis of Green Bronx Machine.
“At one point I had a group of seventeen kids, probably the most challenged kids in this school,” Ritz explained. “A lot of them came to me via the criminal justice system. One thing to know about kids ages 16 to 21 who come out of the criminal justice system is that they usually go back in. Most of them did not want to be in school—nothing to do with me, but having everything to do with just not succeeding at school and a lot of other life challenges. Someone approached me about a potential project outside of school involving some community beautification and restoration that also involved skills like carpentry, plumbing and a lot of demolition work.
“These kids were very excited to get out of school. I had commandeered this project, but I had a lot of support from colleagues who really didn’t know how to engage these youngsters; they were thrilled that I was willing to own these kids and literally make them my family and take them off everybody’s hands. We got out of school and, lo and behold, the kids really succeeded. They took to this and it became their green graffiti, if you will.”
What happened to those seventeen kids? “They all graduated; that’s the most important thing,” Ritz continued. “But not only that, the bulk of them went on to the Bronx Environmental Steward Training Program in the South Bronx. They moved themselves into living-wage jobs and/or post-graduate opportunity, which is really what the promise of public education is about.”
Growing Their Own Food
As the program progressed, Ritz became keenly aware of another issue. “Where I live there is very little access to locally grown food and, even more importantly, very little access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” he said. “Like so many others, I was 100 percent disconnected from what I ate. But through the kids nurturing plants, one thing led to another. We went from ornamental plants, green roofs, green walls and community gardens ultimately to vegetables.
Read the rest of this article at Organic Connections magazine.