A School Garden Born in a Food Desert May Change the Way Kids Eat—and Learn

The highly successful Green Bronx Machine wants to go national.

A Green Bronx Machine tower filled with herbs. (Photo: Green Bronx Machine/Facebook)

Mar 12, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

The South Bronx is full of concrete and crime, but in 2003, a box of daffodil bulbs next to a classroom radiator germinated an idea for teacher Stephen Ritz—an idea that has led to national teaching awards, a viral TED talk, and an invitation to the White House garden plot.

“My favorite crop is organically grown citizens,” Ritz said on the TED stage in 2012, speaking of the results of his work with Green Bronx Machine, the indoor teaching garden system he pioneered. “Graduates, members of the middle class, kids who are going to college, kids who are staying out of jail.”

Mark Winne, author of Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty and a senior advisor for the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, thinks these kind of programs could be the most promising way of addressing food insecurity at large. “Introducing children to healthy fresh food at an early age—I would put my money into that,” he said.

And the South Bronx has, to great results. Ritz and his students at PS 55 have grown more than 30,000 pounds of produce in a patented, vertical aeroponic growing system called Tower Garden, developed by Future Growing Technology. The towers allow crops to be grown without soil—in aeroponics, plants are merely misted—and everyone from NASA to MIT are in on the space-age technology. In the process, the Green Bronx Machine has morphed from after-school activity to a nationally recognized program that’s fully integrated with the school’s core curriculum.

Since the program launched in 2009, daily attendance rates at Ritz’s classes have shot up to 93 percent, and the Green Bronx Machine has led to 2,200 youth jobs building and installing roof and wall gardens for private clients. The gardens are what Ritz calls “the new green graffiti,” and with the help of partners like Sustainable South Bronx, programs with Ritz’s curriculum have spread to more than 100 schools throughout the city. All this in in one of the country’s poorest communities, where hunger, homelessness, unemployment, and obesity rates are sky-high, and the majority of Ritz’s students qualify for subsidized lunch and live below the poverty line.

Next up? The Green Bronx Machine wants to go national.

Ritz is currently crowdsourcing funds on Barnraiser to transform a 60' x 25' empty library in the school into the National Health and Wellness Center. With $33,000 a teaching kitchen can be added to the agricultural operation to show kids what to cook with the greens they grow. But at the ultimate goal of $135,000, the farm will serve as a prototype for what could be replicated at schools across the country, including a teacher-training program that would equip instructors with the curriculum Ritz has developed that connects gardening with math, science, literacy, and free enterprise.

“To think that food is the entry point for public education—for reading, for writing, for literacy, for math, for aspiration and inspiration—is incredible. But most importantly, by growing food we’re creating life,” Ritz explained on Barnraiser.

The nutritional, educational, and personal effects of programs like these are wide-ranging. The average elementary school student receives less than three and a half hours of nutrition education a year—and only 2 percent of students are eating the suggested number of fruits and vegetables. So it’s not surprising that studies show kids eat more fruits and vegetables when they get more nutritional education and when they see how food is grown. Put the two together, researchers at the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation have said, and you’re looking at a recipe for improved student health and academic success. Garden-based learning has an “overwhelmingly positive impact on students’ grades”; it improves students’ attitude toward school and bridges language and cross-cultural barriers.

“If I were to choose one thing that I think would have the most impact, it would be investing in quality food education K-12,” Winne said. “But I think it’s going to be a whole set of interventions that are coordinated and comprehensive in their impact.”

The South Bronx is long way from the first Edible Schoolyard begun by Alice Waters at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California, in 1996. But as the idea has grown and matured, a project like Green Bronx Machine shows how the local food movement and the food justice movement can be one and the same—democratized, accessible, and educational. And while the program starts at school, the effects ripple out into the larger community, with students taking produce home and donations being made to food pantries. In similar programs, such as The Youth Farm in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, revenue is generated through a CSA, as well as retail sales at farmers markets and wholesale relationships with neighborhood restaurants.

It’s an intervention that works across multiple levels—plus, it’s fun, which partly accounts for why Ritz’s students keep showing up and spreading the work.

“It’s easier to raise healthy children than fix broken men,” Ritz said of his work on Barnraiser, with infectious enthusiasm. “If we can knock down stereotypes and bridge kids and schools around things that are gonna benefit the environment and the world as a whole? Wow.”