Stephen Ritz has made it his mission as an educator and school administrator in the South Bronx – the nation’s poorest school district – to “grow 21st century citizens.” During a recent visit to American University, he shared his vision of education, nutrition, social mobility, and sustainability with students, faculty, staff, neighbors, and local educators.
He began by displaying a glass of water on the video screen. Ritz asked the crowd if they thought it was half empty or half full. To the surprise of all, he said that it was neither. It was 100 percent full, he explained, of two chemicals vital to all life – air and water. Thus began his introduction to “embracing a mindset of endless resourcefulness.”
This mindset of working with relatively few resources was critical for Ritz, as he sparked the complete transformation of his classroom by asking his students to, quite literally, grow.
First, he and his students planted a “green wall,” also known as a vertical garden, in the back of their classroom. Students gained an appreciation for wholesome and nutritious food that they could get up from their seats and eat at any time. Their in-class model expanded when Ritz’s students turned into full-fledged urban farmers. They learned valuable skills in gardening and construction, as they have built vertical garden systems on top of the most exclusive penthouses in Manhattan, on NBC’s Today Show, and even took summer trips to the Hamptons where they plied their new-found skills. Thirty-thousand pounds of vegetables later, Ritz says that his favorite crop is “organically grown citizens."
The skills and interests his students acquired helped them make it to graduation in record numbers. "Kids who used to sell crack, now sell cucumbers and make a lot more money,” Ritz explained. “Wouldn't you rather kids be addicted to cucumbers?"
In addition to these skills, Ritz uses concepts of gardening to teach subjects as diverse as mathematics, English, history, and nutrition.
"The lack of proper nutrition is the biggest bully in public schools, when cheap food is so expensive”, Ritz pointed out as he brought up an image of a school lunch that looked anything but healthy. “It's killing our kids, it's killing our country."
His solution: "Model a healthy plate - 'vegucate' them!"
Ritz’s lessons resonated with the AU crowd, as many in the audience were inspired to become involved with his programs, or learn how they can be replicated here in the District. One of the biggest takeaways, demonstrated in the lecture hall that day, was that Ritz’s lessons transcend boundaries and bring people together. "Nature is diverse”, he explained. “Only people like to segregate themselves."
Ritz’s visit was sponsored by the School of Education, Teaching, and Health, the Center for Food Studies, the Global Environmental Politics Program, the Department of Environmental Science, and the Office of Sustainability.