Growing healthy jobs, food and the environment

J. Collazo, F. Jackson, S. Ritz, S. Roberson, M. Vega, D. Francis Joining the numerous environmental-activist vendors displaying their wares are (from left) Jonathan Collazo of Bronx Community College, Florence Jackson of the Department of Education, former public school teacher Stephen Ritz of the Green Bronx Machine, UFT Vice President Sterling Roberson, UFT Safety and Health staffer Miriam Vega and Dante Francis of Discovery HS in the Bronx.
Francis and Collazo explain to passersby how their Green Bronx Machine project Francis (left) and Collazo explain to passersby how their Green Bronx Machine project

Ensuring that high school students are both job- and college-ready is not just a mantra for Stephen Ritz, the former South Bronx science teacher who now heads the nonprofit Green Bronx Machine. He’s doing it in a new and creative way by teaching the sort of career skills that can land students decent-paying jobs. He’s inspiring an abiding interest in the environment and healthy foods. And he’s also creating jobs that pay a living wage.

What’s his secret? Turning urban youth, including many students housed in homeless shelters, into urban farmers.

Still only a few years old, the Green Bronx Machine has already grown 25,000 pounds of organic vegetables that were then sold to local markets.

Ritz thinks it’s a template for job growth for young people, a boon for the environment, better health for consumers and a model that’s already been exported to both Boston and Washington, D.C.

He’s right on all counts.

“It’s as simple as buying a bag of seeds for 99 cents, which later produces thousands of dollars in product,” Ritz told me at the April 20 “Eco Bash” Earth Day celebration at the Upper West Side’s Whole Foods, where he joined numerous other environmental-activist vendors displaying their wares.

Standing amid the Earth Day displays, Ritz introduced me to his former students Dante Francis and Jonathan Collazo, who were busily explaining to passersby how their project works.

The two are just a few of Ritz’s former students who not only run a farmers’ market after school but are skilled in building what they call vertical and edible “Green Walls” gardens and cold frames, or stainless steel structures affixed to the outsides of buildings. It’s a system that they said requires little soil or water. They’ve also grown nutritious foods in vacant lots and on rooftops.

Besides being a food producer, the Green Bronx Machine reduces air pollution, deters graffiti and minimizes storm water runoff, the young men told me.

The project is a winner in the classroom, too. Ritz insisted that a project like this “gets the temperature in the classroom down.” After he introduced the Green Bronx Machine, his classroom attendance rates jumped to 93 percent almost immediately.

Ritz makes a compelling argument that the project is not only replicable but “a ticket to the middle class.”

And he doesn’t stop there. Ritz’s former school, Discovery HS on the former Walton HS campus, is within walking distance of blocks of public housing.

“If you can get that quality of food into the communities, you’d not only flood the neighborhoods with healthy, fresh produce but keep trucks out, too,” he said.

I came away impressed. This is a bold initiative that gets people to understand that an environmental project like this is in everyone’s common interest — it’s what I call “green literacy.” And for people in some of the city’s most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, it allows them to make a decent living. And by selling to Whole Foods, they get to know other neighborhoods and to mix with different kinds of people.

Projects like the Bronx Green Machine are what Career and Technical Education is all about. We know that quality CTE programs prepare students with the academic, technical and employability skills that are needed in a rapidly changing technological world. Above all else, we ignite a love of learning in our students and a zest for success in life.

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