Feature: New York educator grows seeds of hope for children

by Christine Schiffner
NEW YORK, Aug. 15 — New Yorker Stephen Ritz hardly takes a day off from his beloved work. The educator calls himself “the luckiest man on the planet” because he plants vegetables with school children in the New York borough of Bronx, teaching them not only about nutritious food but also about how to lead productive and healthy lives.
In Bronx, the poorest U.S. Congressional district based on the latest data released by the U.S. Census, child obesity and diabetes rates are at record levels as many children grow up with fast food as a main source of nutrition. Ritz, a life-long Bronx resident, has witnessed the decay of many areas in the borough from working-class to drug-infested and crime-ridden neighborhoods.
“There are those who say, you have to accept the things you cannot change. But I am working to change the things I cannot accept. And some of the things I cannot accept include childhood diabetes, morbidly obese kids who don’t have access to fresh food, ” Ritz told Xinhua.
He was enthusiastic when he talked about how his project helps to find his student gardeners a new family outside of their home and consequently exerts a lasting positive impact on their lives.
“When you plant seeds, they grow. So I consider students to be seeds, and so we’re planting seeds of opportunity, seeds of hope,” said Ritz.
What started out as a small classroom project has by now mushroomed into a non-profit organization dubbed “The Green Bronx Machine” operating 15 indoor and outdoor gardening sites and involving hundreds of students. The young gardeners not only learn how to grow, produce but also how to cook healthy meals. The vegetables that are grown are either given to the students or sold on local farmer’s markets.
Noting that most of his students are not only missing nutritious meals, but also parental loving care in their lives, Ritz said, “We’re planting students, we’re planting minds and remarkably along the way, we’re generating outrageous outcomes. School attendance, weight loss, academic performance. To me, that’ s incredible.”
When Darrell Francis first met Ritz five years ago, he thought this veggie-growing teacher was a bit crazy.
“We grew up in a neighborhood where we didn’t really have much given to us,” the 20-year-old said. “We mostly had junk food places, liquor places, drug places, a lot of drugs going around. We grew up in a neighborhood where there was a lot of gun action, all kinds of killings.”
However, Ritz’s enthusiasm for his Green Bronx Machine was so contagious that Francis decided to give planting vegetables a try.
Francis, who used to have the nickname “chocolate man” in school because of his constant longing for sweets, now teaches other children how to grow produce and make healthy food choices.
“We are trying to lift people from the shackles they’re bound to in terms of junk food. I think, the program over time will change their minds, will change the neighborhood one garden at a time.”
One of their largest community gardens six blocks right along the train tracks on the Northern tip of the Bronx used to be a hangout for drug addicts and the homeless, he said, adding that Ritz and his organization converted the land piece by piece into vegetable gardens.
As the area grows greener, it becomes more peaceful, he said.
“This is a perfect example of how people’s mindsets can change in a borough that was once desolate and hopeless,” Ritz’s daughter Michaela said. She has helped building the project and its gardens from the start about 10 years ago.
With a big smile on her face, she talked about how much personal fulfillment she gets from spending most of her free time planting vegetables with teenage school kids.
Ritz in the beginning financed the project out of his own pocket but now relies on financial as well as seed donations to keep the Green Bronx Machine running.
To raise awareness, he also introduced his organization in a Ted Talk which quickly went viral.
“Making kids who are apart from to becoming a part of in ways that benefit society,” Ritz said charismatically, “because it is easier to raise healthy kids than to fix broken men.”
Ritz does not want to stop in the Bronx. He said he hoped to ” export” his project across the country with one in eight preschoolers obese, and even around the world. He is planning to present the Green Bronx Machine at the World Innovation Summit in Qatar in October.[db:内容2]