The machine launched at Discovery High School in the South Bronx, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country. There, Ritz set up an “indoor edible wall” that enabled students to grow vegetables (more on that below). The program quickly expanded when the students grew enough food to open their own farmer’s market, which began feeding the nearby community.
GBM officially became a nonprofit in 2010, and students brought the program outside of the school walls when they began constructing green roofs for nearby buildings. Many even acquired jobs because of their new green skills.
Ritz spoke about GBM at the TEDxManhattan conference in January, telling the audience that the program’s biggest achievement has been its effect on students. Since its launch, attendance rates have increased from 43 percent to 90 percent, Ritz says, and students’ academic performance also improved.
In the Q&A below, The Inside Track asks Ritz about how he built such a powerful machine, and what he sees for the future.
An enthusiastic Stephen Ritz shares the story of the Green Bronx Machine with the TEDxManhattan audience.
Let’s start with the basics: What’s an “Indoor Edible Wall?”
An indoor edible wall is simply a vertical planting configuration that allows students to plant an exponential amount of plants on a wall-like vertical plane with a very small horizontal footprint. In essence, not only are we bringing the farm indoors, we are growing upward instead of outward.
How did the Green Bronx Machine start?
I’d have to say the entire process and project started organically. I was simply looking to engage students and create a noteworthy point of entry for learning. The reality is that nature is designed to succeed. Thus, when you mimic nature, you are mimicking success. Given that we have traditionally been a consumption-based society, it became increasingly obvious that this model was not, and is not, sustainable and that literally, using this technology, we could grow, re-use and recycle our way into a whole new local economy. … The realities speak for themselves; today we are harvesting hope and cultivating minds and opportunities!
Did you have any experience in gardening or farming when you began the Green Bronx Machine?
None at all whatsoever! I grew up thinking the world would be a better place [if] it was all dark and indoors, like a nice club or restaurant. The fact that we have grown over 25,000 pounds of “Fresh Squeezed Bronx” vegetables speaks to the fact that we are all Amer-I-CANS!!!
Realize that during World War II, untold sums of food were grown in Victory Gardens. This vertical and indoor portable technology makes the whole process easier, is less labor and water intensive and actually allows me to teach more and labor less. [At the same time I’m] getting the academic, social-emotional and career outcomes necessary to move youth into spheres of success and engagement they never imagined. Realize that with this technology, I can garden anywhere: brown fields, battlefields, parking lots, etc., all year round. I’ve never been [pooped] on by a pigeon indoors!
When you first started the project, did you ever imagine it would lead to all these other benefits: increasing classroom attendance, finding jobs for students and transforming the local food environment? Why do you think it took off as it did?
My natural curiosities about the world tend to mimic those of my students. Thus, the transition was easy and the technology makes it so fascinating, accessible and inclusive for all. Never underestimate the potential of a well sown crop! What started as a means to engagement really took root in wholly systemic ways that we never imagined — all good of course! While we are living in an age of nature versus Nintendo, when people learn about both nature and nurture, the implications and results are astounding. Food is a non-negotiable, so when you can grow it in highly profitable efficient manners — zero miles to plate mind you — it changes the dynamics of every aspect of life for students and parents, particularly those who are low-income and living in food deserts. People and communities inherently want to succeed. They just need the proper tools and support. Our program represents a free standing economic engine, one that makes dollars and a whole lot more sense! I liken it all to the “perfect green storm.” My favorite crop is locally grown organic engaged citizens! Beyond vegetables and paychecks, we’re growing citizens, voters, communities and moving tax burdens to become tax payers while changing the health, mindsets and landscapes of urban America.
Never underestimate the power of living wage and triple bottom line economics! Our program has now been relocated from Discovery High School to the Renaissance Charter High School for Innovation, not shut down. Simply put, we have too much momentum and too much interest. The results have been tremendous. The mantra behind Green Bronx Machine includes: “Coming to a City Near You Soon,” and indeed we are! We are expanding all across the Bronx and in Harlem and have made many national appearances and presentations. Ours is an easily replicable program and that is the beauty of it; it is a perennial success with rapid and demonstrable return on investment! Our goal is to have our reach exceed our grasp and to build coalition and collaboration across the nation, particularly around intergenerational programming. We’re getting ready to launch a highly interactive website and in the interim, you can like us on Facebook
and follow us on Twitter
In your TED talk, you described yourself as the “oldest sixth grader you’ll ever meet” because of your enthusiasm. How do you stay motivated?
Without a doubt I am the oldest sixth grader in the world! There is so much to be fascinated by and involved with. This is truly a glorious time to be alive because the stakes have never been higher and the answers more obvious and so clearly in front of us! It is easy to stay motivated because there is so much good work to do and the reinforcement occurs daily. This is not a solo endeavor. I have the greatest job in the world, in the greatest city in the world, with the greatest family, students and colleagues in the world. I’m blessed, proud, privileged and grateful to be doing the work that I am doing and really believe that we are all just getting started! This is our moment! Si se puede!
What advice would you have for people wanting to start similar programs in their communities?
There is no time like the present! I always encourage folks to take that big green leap. Food and employment are non-negotiable; enhancing systems that develop both are win-win by design and intent. Build concentric circles around what you know and what is near and dear to you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and look at what works and doesn’t work and why. Repeatedly and often, I tend to find the answers are right in front of us.