This post was written as part of Progressive’s Apron Project, helping tell the story of people and their initiatives making progress towards a greater good. I have been compensated as a contributor to this project, but the thoughts and opinions in this post are my own.
Ready to be inspired?
Here’s a story about a school teacher in the poorest congressional district in America, who turns kids on the verge of dropping out of school into hard working, math and science learning gardeners, ready to launch into adulthood as productive and engaged, “organically grown” citizens.
The man is Stephen Ritz and the organization he founded is Green Bronx Machine.
Green Bronx Machine is a non-profit dedicated to “growing, re-using, resourcing and recycling our way into new and healthy ways of living”. Using classroom gardens (both indoors and out), school kids learn how to plant, tend, harvest, sell and eat fresh vegetables in the middle of a food desert with limited access to fresh food.
The idea to grow vegetables in classrooms germinated after a box of neglected tulip bulbs started growing behind a dripping radiator in Stephen’s classroom. Before long, Stephen was transforming classrooms into indoor, urban gardens capable of feeding 450 students healthy meals daily. Soon the gardens were producing enough to sell to the surrounding community.
The majority of the kids served by Green Bronx Machine are special needs learners, English language learners, homeless, in foster care or adjudicated youth. Not only are these student farmers staying in school (attendance rates have increased from 40% to 93%) but they are learning skills that will transfer to real jobs when school is finished.
Vegetables as Teachers
How exactly do kids learn by gardening? I asked Steve that question and his answer came fast and furious: counting, weighing, portioning, graphing, surveying, managing, prediction, analysis, marketing…it went on and on. He likes to call it “Farming across the common core.” Love that.
The program engages kids in all academic areas – reading, writing, science, math. They learn problem solving, critical thinking, how to follow directions, how to engage with customers. Elementary kids read to the plants (for real!), while older students are calculating metrics, graphing results and managing cash. When they graduate (and almost everyone does), they go on to college and real jobs – some in horticulture, some in the restaurant biz and many other vocations – prepared for life through gardening.
Talking with Steve, it’s clear that his passion and dedication to the mission of Green Bronx Machine runs deep. “The kids are my seeds.”, he proclaims proudly, “Together, we are growing something better.” He’s seen first hand that kids from marginalized communities get jazzed about becoming producers. They learn to nurture, they are proud of their plants. They want to produce more.
Steve’s enthusiasm for his work is contagious. Just listen to him. But beware, your eyes might tear up a bit. He’s that inspiring.
“Plant by plant, classroom by classroom, we’re changing outcomes, we’re changing destinies.” – Stephen Ritz
Firmly established in New York, Steve is now taking the Green Bronx Machine model national, hoping to replicate its success across the country. Learn more about the amazing Green Bronx Machine: Website, Ted Talk, Apron Project, Facebook, Twitter. (BTW – the students run the Facebook page – how cool is that?)
Images from Green Bronx Machine and video from Progressive used with permission.