The Power of a Plant: Interview with ‘People Farmer’ Stephen Ritz

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If ancient Babylon’s “Hanging Garden” made it one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the “Tower Garden” in South Bronx, New York, is certainly a miraculous sight to behold in our times. Not for any sense of opulence or external splendor, but for the spectacular physical, social and spiritual transformation of the community where it is located. In the midst of the poorest congressional district in the United States, vegetables grown in this indoor garden provides wholesome nourishment to children and families who have extremely limited access to fresh food. They turn young children into healthy, happy students, curious to learn and grow into great citizens who contribute to the community where they live.

And this wondrous work all started 10 years ago with Stephen Ritz, a teacher working in the South Bronx for almost three decades. He has become world-famous for the innovative education he introduced to the local public schools. He made it to the Top 10 finalists of the Global Teacher Prize in 2015 and was chosen as one of NPR’s 50 Greatest Teachers in 2016. His TEDxManhattan Talk garnered over 1 million views.

He started to involve his students in community gardening projects about 10 years ago by a certain “accident”–told vividly in his newly published autobiography “The Power of a Plant

In fact a few years ago, when I was living in Hong Kong, I saw a video of Mr. Steve–as his students call him. I remember seeing a tall teacher with a theatrical style, wearing a bow-tie and a wacky cheese hat, surrounded by a group of youngsters. Together they tended to an indoor garden filled with vertical towers where green leaves of various vegetables sprouted from the holes on the sides of some white plastic cylinders. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. By the end of the video, I was in tears. I realized what an epic revolution Mr. Steve had ushered in. It was a revolution in the way food is grown and distributed, and a revolution in environmental sustainability and social justice. Who would have thought I would actually visit this very school, which I originally saw on my computer screen 8,000 miles away?

A Pilgrimage to the ‘Tower Garden’

As I came to a neighborhood that I had never visited before and walked into a 100-year-old school building, my heart started to pound. I climbed up four flights of stairs and entered a big room known as the National Health, Wellness & Learning Center. When I opened the door, bright light and the sound of flowing water greeted me. The space was quiet and calm; the air felt clean and crisp. There were green leaves everywhere. Mr. Steve, wearing a familiar-looking bow-tie and a cheese hat, greeted me with a warm welcome and a firm handshake.

He showed me around his award-winning classroom. First, a state-of-the-art Green Bronx Machine mobile classroom kitchen, which is a mini-food truck equipped with a full commercial kitchen (with no exhaust). It is low-cost, replicable and portable, so it can be wheeled from classroom to classroom. Then, there were a few stationary bicycles for powering blenders. “We used to have children who used to run the hall endlessly misbehaving, who now are getting on the bicycles and making themselves a healthy smoothie,” he explained.

Of course, one cannot miss the Tower Garden, with green fresh leaves sprouting from seven white plastic towers. Water circulates through the towers constantly. From tower to table, it only takes a dozen steps. The operation would make any locavore’s heart sing.

Every week, Stephen’s students harvest up to 100 bags of greens and bring them home to share with their families. “For a community that has limited access to fresh and real food, this is awesome,” he said with great pride. “We have cooking lessons and children write their own recipes. Bringing children around the table is something great and parents love it. Because of the economic reality of this community, we have a lot of parents in transitional housing. So now they have access to healthy food. And the children have meals cooked in school. It helps them to have academic success. It’s spectacular!”

We sat down next to these towers and Stephen explained what exactly comes out of these towers. “We grow 37 kinds of fruits and vegetables indoors all year long, except for root vegetables, rice and corn. Outside, in our school garden, we grow radishes, tricolored carrots, potatoes–you name it, we grow it. We use 90% less water [than conventional agriculture]. I’m proud to say that we have one of the most productive indoor farms per square foot in New York City in the school, and we have one of the most productive outdoor soil farms in the heart of public housing, giving students an opportunity to interact with nature.”

Nature and Nurture

“When the students are in touch with Nature, they learn to nurture. When they do that, we as a society collectively embrace our better nature,” Stephen says.

His philosophy reminded me of a saying in Chinese: “Ten years to grow a tree; 100 years to grow a person.” Stephen couldn’t agree more. This is exactly what he has been doing over the past 10 years.

“I’m a people farmer. I don’t have a science background. But I’m fascinated. You put a teeny tiny seed in the ground and after 60 days, you’ve got a plant that gives you tomatoes and peppers that you can make into a wonderful salsa. To me it’s amazing. So when you put a seed in a child’s hand, you are making a bet. You’re making a promise, that the little seed will grow into something great with a little love, with a little tenderness, with a little care,” he says, with so much love shining through his eyes.

“I believe that children are like seeds and seeds represent genetic potential. I want all my children to reach their God-given genetic potential.  And it starts with what you feed them.”

“For me, the unused talent, and the unused human potential in marginalized neighborhoods like mine, represents the greatest natural resources in the world. And I am determined to make epic happen and grow something great where people will least expect to happen, and in the process, keep a whole lot of students off the path of diabetes and obesity–a growing epidemic that is just absurd. So to think that I can help in that trajectory and align it with good academic performance and send the children home with robust nutrition, awesome!”

From Growing Gardens to Growing Food

The synergy between growing plants as food and nourishing students and developing their full potential had not always been a clear, linear path for Stephen. When he started to involve his students in community gardening projects about 10 years ago by a certain “accident”–told vividly in his newly published autobiography “The Power of a Plant” (Rodale, 2017)–he was thinking more in terms of environmental and social justice. Greening the community by turning ugly lots into gardens and roofs and walls into “green graffiti” was a means to channel his students’ untamed energy into something useful for the community and helping them gain employment.

A “pivotal” moment that turned his green gardening efforts into a food movement was when he met Change Food founder Diane Hatz, who invited him to give a talk for TEDxManhattan. “She was perceptive enough to realize the work I’m doing in environmental and social justice intersected with food justice. And that gave me a much wider audience to connect with.”

At that time, back in 2012, he was overweight, and he realized that if he had to convince people of the power of what a plant can do–give the gift of health and well-being– that he must do something about his own body.

At 300 pounds, eating only cheap food he nicknames a MESS “mass-market edible synthetic substance” and drinking a gallon of soda a day, he was seriously damaging his health. One day, he passed out in front of his daughter, having messed up with his medications. That was the wake-up call that propelled him to turn his health around.

“I realized on some fundamental level I was eating myself to death. So I said to myself, ‘I don’t want to die in front of my daughter, with a cheeseburger in one hand and a slice of pizza in the other, washing it down with a large Coke.'”

After introducing the “Tower Garden” to his students and sharing with them the fruits of their labor, he witnessed an amazing transformation in his health. By eating freshly grown vegetables, reducing the portion size and frequency of what he ate and drinking water instead of soda, he lost more than 100 pounds, stopped taking all his medications, became a healthier and happier person, and has much more energy now than ever. At the same time, he saw his own students become stronger physically, mentally and emotionally. It was a victory they shared by working with their green thumbs together.

Through the process of tending the garden, harvesting vegetables, making meals together, the children have learned to get along with one another.

“We are growing citizens here, we are growing opportunity and community–and we’re not doing that with Kool Aid and hot dogs, we are doing it with locally grown food.”

As a result of eating the whole and fresh foods they grow, instead of junk food, the students improved their attendance and academic performance, and the whole school has been transformed. Behavioral incidents have been reduced by 50 percent since 2014. Attendance among targeted students went up to 95 percent (2009-2011). Passing rates in science exams have increased by 45 percent from school year 2014-15 to 2015-16.

“As we see brains expand and waist lines go down, blood pressure decrease, academic capacity increase, who knows what the future holds? I’m so excited,” Stephen says.

His biggest moment of epiphany: “It is easier to raise healthier children than fix broken men. Rather than working with children who are delayed in high school, I wanted to get ahead of that curve. I want to raise up children with good habits and healthy habits in alignment with 21st century careers and college opportunities.”

“As we all know, indoor vertical controlled agriculture is the 21st century career and college opportunity of a lifetime, with triple bottom line for the whole planet. As the world gets more crowded, more hot, more global and more urbanized, the need for high-efficiency indoor farming that gives us delicious, nutritious, high-density food is absolutely critical. Now is the perfect timing.”

The Tower Spreads Like Wildfire

The concept of using the Tower Garden to grow food in the classroom has spread like wildfire. Three years after the first Tower Garden was set up, there are now 5,000 tower gardens thriving in schools across America.

Stephen is also partnering with schools around the world, from Canada to Dubai, from Colombia to Cairo. “It’s absolutely inspiring to think we have gone from the ‘food desert’ here to the Middle East desert and back. And Dubai has sent people here to learn about the work that we’re doing. It’s the exact model of global citizenship that we should all aspire to. One world. One nation. Food for all.”

It is nothing short of a miracle that the poorest congressional district in America has given birth to the first National Health, Wellness & Learning Center, while the second center is going to the sustainable city in the heart of downtown Dubai. “That’s the Power of a Plant!”  Stephen exclaims. “It’s people coming together and uniting. It all started with a seed.”

In his book “The Power of a Plant,” Stephen tells his life story in vivid colors–from the time when he was a rookie teacher in his own home turf, figuring out a way to connect with his “difficult” students, all the way through his journey of discovery of how to tap into the potential of a seed (and child) and turn that into an amazing plant (and citizen) with the power of love. It is a story of dreams and aspirations, of the regeneration of an urban landscape and of human spirit, of triumph over adversity, and most important of all, of faith and belief in all possibilities.

Proceeds from the sale of the book will go to funding the work of the Green Bronx Machine.

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Louisa Wah is a former journalist transitioning to a new career as an integrative nutrition health coach. She is passionate about showing people how to eat and live their way to optimal health. Connect with her at “Eat Right with Louisa.”

Change Food® works toward a healthier food system for people, animals & the planet.  Learn more about Plant Eat Share – planting food in public spaces. For free.