Want Kids to Show Up to School? Teach ’Em to Garden

South Bronx educator Stephen Ritz has found plenty of benefits to growing fruits and vegetables on campus. Higher attendance is one of them.

(Photo: Green Bronx Machine/Facebook)

Staff Writer Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at GOOD.

If we want to lower childhood obesity rates, educating kids about the need to swap junk and fast food for healthier choices is essential. But is teaching students how to grow fruits and vegetables the key to getting them to come to school and engage in the academic curriculum?

That’s what South Bronx teacher and administrator Stephen Ritz believes. Ritz has been gardening with students for years, and he launched the first indoor edible gardens in New York City’s public schools. He believes that growing fruits and vegetables ensures that kids have something other than a bag of chips to eat and also makes them want to show up for class almost every day.

“The kids really believe that they are responsible for [the plants], and attendance has increased from 43 percent to 93 percent,” Ritz wrote in the The Guardian. “Students come to school to take care of their plants—they want to see them succeed. Along the way, the kids succeed too. That’s great, because if I have their bodies in school, I have their brain.”

Once they’re in the building, Ritz’s students learn the academic curriculum while being immersed in the agricultural process. They also pick up skills that are transferable to the job market. The Bronx, where Ritz is based, has long been known as the poorest congressional district in the United States. Generational poverty is rampant, and jobs are scarce.

“A lot of these kids’ families are on minimum wages, so we are giving them the skills to use in well paid culinary careers,” wrote Ritz. “We are creating the next generation of customer service specialists and gourmet chefs.”

As a result of all their hard work, the gardens produce enough food to feed 450 kids. Ritz has received plenty of accolades; last spring he and his students were invited to the White House.

Through his nonprofit Green Bronx Machine, which he started in 2011, Ritz hopes to help schools in other communities jump-start comparable agricultural programs. “I can’t expect everyone to be a Herculean farmer in a classroom, but running a similar growing project in your school is safe, lightweight, and no kids are getting dirty,” he wrote. 

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