This article tells the story of Global Teacher Prize finalist and EF Summit keynote speaker Stephen Ritz, as written with Suzie Boss. Stephen Ritz is the founder of Green Bronx Machine, an organization aimed at building healthy communities through school based urban agriculture projects. He and Suzie Boss are co-authors of The Power of a Plant: A Teacher’s Odyssey to Grow Healthy Minds and Schools.
In the South Bronx where I’ve spent a lifetime teaching, it’s not hard to plan adventures that will shake my students’ perspectives. Most of them have seen so little of the world beyond their immediate neighborhoods that a visit anywhere else is a revelation.
I remember escorting a dozen teenagers on a research trip to Whole Foods in Manhattan. This was in the early days of my education-and-social-change program called the Green Bronx Machine, and we were trying to figure out which vegetables to grow.
As soon as the grocery doors slid open, my students realized they had entered an unfamiliar environment. No bulletproof glass here. No cashier in a cage. The nonchalance my students wear on the street—part of their invisible protective armor—gave way to full alert as they started to size up this place. Heads whipped around. Eyes grew wide. This was interesting!
Two steps inside, we all came to a sudden halt in front of the bounty that spread out before us. Red, yellow, and green apples nestled in perfect pyramids. And the peppers! There must have been 30 varieties of peppers—big and small; orange, yellow, green, red, purple. What a contrast to what my students called “hood veggies,” the sad-looking lettuce you find in our neighborhood bodegas.
That field trip was exactly the inspiration my students needed to cultivate their own urban farm back in the Bronx. Our harvest was so bountiful, we were able to donate more than 42,000 pounds of fresh produce to a local food bank serving the homeless. We continued innovating and wound up growing more vegetables on rooftops and in classroom farms using cutting-edge technologies. Through it all, my students learned about everything from science to entrepreneurship to global citizenship. Today we grow vegetables indoors–in school, all year long, using low-cost scalable technology using 90% less water and 90% less space, sending home 100 bags of vegetables per week in a community that has limited means and access to healthy fresh food. I like to say we are growing something greater.
As the story of the Green Bronx Machine has spread, we have inspired similar programs around the world, from Canada to Dubai. Our classroom routinely hosts visitors from all over the world who are looking for their own shot of inspiration. My students are only too happy to share what they know. Most of them still don’t travel much beyond their immediate neighborhoods, but their understanding of the world has expanded exponentially. And it all started with what I call the power of a plant.
Want to bring the power of the plant to your own classroom? Check out these resources!