Teacher creates first-of-its-kind classroom, draws attention of Pope, Oprah

Life-long educator Stephen Ritz began his career as an ordinary teacher, unaware that his destiny would lead him to provide food to those in need while encouraging healthy habits and attendance in school.

"One day during a classroom fight -- literally where I thought a student was going to grab a weapon -- he reached under the radiator and came out with a handful of daffodils and the rest is history," Ritz told AccuWeather's Lincoln Riddle in a recent interview.

Ritz's mission started by accident that very moment in 2000 but has since evolved and gained the attention of the pope, his community and the internet.

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"I was gifted a box of bulbs, daffodil bulbs and didn't even know what they were and kind of threw them away and hid them behind an old radiator in the back of a building," Ritz explained.

Water and heat from the radiator caused the bulbs to grow, which inspired what is now called "The Green Bronx Machine," an educational project that feeds not only the mind but the stomach as well.

That year, Ritz and his students from Public School 55 planted 25,000 daffodil bulbs across New York City. Since then, Ritz has developed a curriculum that is being used across the country in academic classes from math and science to social studies.

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"I grow vegetables. My vegetables grow students," Ritz said. "My students grow schools, and my schools grow community."

His curriculum helps transform performance metrics and changes health outcomes for students, not only in the Bronx but for 50,000 students across America.

"Our attendance here is off the hook. We've moved targeted attendance from 40% to 93%," Ritz said.

And it gets them involved in their communities.

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"We orchestrated the door-to-door delivery of over 100,000 pounds of food," Ritz said.

He went on to say that the effort that emerged since the turn of the millennium has been remarkable. "We gave birth to the first edible classroom in all of New York City, which routinely grew enough food to grow a vegan lunch for 450 students. It has now since evolved into the National Health, Wellness and Learning Center where we grow food, generate energy, have solar power, people power, along with a very rigorous academic program," Ritz said.

Ritz said that when he started with the urban farm movement, he wanted to get the excitement of growing food seasonally into classrooms so it could be something that would be useful 12 months a year, not just for the two months that school was out.

In Ritz's book, The Power of a Plant, the longtime teacher explains he wound up taking over a school and classroom with children who were really disconnected. And, perhaps surprisingly, the project didn't stem from him having background in science or agriculture.

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"You know, the interesting part of my story is I have no science background. None of it. I'm not a horticulturist. I'm not an agriculturist," Ritz said.

But that didn't stop him from achieving his destiny of helping children.

"Whether our children are hungry, malnourished, poorly nourished, input equals output. So in order to fuel their bodies and their brains, input is essential," Ritz said.

Insufficient consumption of fruits and vegetables in childhood increases the risk of future, non‐communicable diseases, including cardiovascular disease, according to the National Institute of Health.

"The ability to go from being a consumer of something that is marketed to you, often without your control, to being able to produce your own food and bring it home to your family and to those in need is game-changing," Ritz said.

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The hard work being done by the Green Bronx Machine has even been recognized by Pope Francis and TV legend Oprah Winfrey.

"It was so cool to get a get-out-of-school note for that day and have a letter from the pope. But remarkably, the pope has sent people here to observe our classroom," Ritz said.

However, Ritz says that what he's doing is not just helping people, it's also helping the planet.


"Every time I keep a burger out of a child's belly and replace it with a fresh salad or a banana, think of the footprint reduction," Ritz said.

"When we teach children about nature, we teach them to nurture and when we teach children to nurture, we as a society collectively embrace our better nature," Ritz explained.

Ritz likes to say he's growing citizens.

"You can't go from seed to harvest without cultivation in the middle and what we're really doing is cultivating children and cultivating the future," Ritz said.

Additional reporting by Lincoln Riddle and Bryan Conyers.

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