Virus is no match for Bronx ‘machine’

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It’s been made clear there is a correlation between healthy eating and success in education for kids. And that’s exactly what fuels Stephen Ritz, a long-time educator from Riverdale who wants to transform society into small, resilient communities.

To make that happen, he founded Green Bronx Machine in 2011, an all-volunteer organization that incorporates a healthy eating initiative in schools where kids may have more limited options while providing fresh produce to lower income areas. The organization touches 50,000 students across 500 schools all over the country every day.

“Children will never be well-read if they’re not well-fed,” Ritz said. “So giving children access to healthy learning paradigms and healthy, fresh food is critical now more than ever.”

Green Bronx Machine specializes in indoor academic learning gardens. Students from the elementary to college level cultivate produce using 90 percent less water and 90 percent less space. Each of these “edible classrooms” can grow enough food to feed 450 people.

“No one can do everything, but everyone can do something,” Ritz said. “We believe we are at the forefront of a movement locally grown in the Bronx that is helping everyone to grow something great and tackle the pandemic one person, one kind action, and one day at a time.”

Ritz created agricultural curriculum, protocols, and procedures designed to help teachers, and can be replicated anywhere.

“We grow vegetables,” Ritz said, “but our vegetables grow students, schools and communities.”

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Ritz has made weekly produce deliveries across a 26-mile stretch as well as to what he’s determined are the 55 most vulnerable families in the South Bronx. Green Bronx Machine also supports the plating, sourcing and delivery of 2,200 meals daily in public housing.

Deliveries and pickups have become more efficient during the pandemic, and with the help of groups like Hunts Point Terminal Market and Gotham Greens, Ritz has been able to pick up produce at its freshest.

“We grow a lot of vegetables,” Ritz said. “But when we can’t grow enough, it’s great to know that someone in New York City is growing the best vegetables and that we deliver them within 24 hours.”

Since March, Green Bronx Machine has provided grocery deliveries for 26 patients at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Once the coronavirus closed schools, Ritz and his wife as well as other volunteers made deliveries themselves, once a week over a 24-hour period. Groceries are bagged for delivery at P.S. 24 Spuyten Duyvil where many show up to volunteer their time.

“Every day I am inspired by the brave, heroic and empathetic compassion that lives deep within the hearts of every single New Yorker,” Ritz said.

He’s continued to work with students online daily throughout the pandemic, reading to them virtually or outside buildings and windows. The organization also has provided instructional support for teachers through the Zoom online videoconferencing app.

Green Bronx Machine has used Zoom itself for online cooking classes. Ingredients are delivered to each student’s home the day before class to ensure they have everything they need to follow along.

“You can’t eat a laptop,” Ritz said. “So we deliver food, instruction, books and materials daily to our students.”

Ritz’s work at Green Bronx Machine has made his organization known beyond his home.

The organization has received press for its work from the likes of National Geographic and Time for Kids. Ritz was a 2015 finalist for the Global Teacher Prize, a $1 million prize that has only been won by an American once since its founding five years ago.

Ritz authored “The Power of a Plant,” donating the proceeds to public schools. He’s even had a chance to meet Pope Francis. Ritz’s students have cooked in the White House during the Obama administration, and he’s even invited the White House chef to visit the Bronx to cook with students.

But all these programs do cost money, and Ritz relies on the generosity of others to keep it going. Beyond standard cash donations at GreenBronxMachine.org, buying a “sustainable gangster” T-shirt pays for a bag of groceries for a family, Ritz said, while also providing living-wage employment for those making the T-shirts.

Says Ritz: “I think it is important that people know that in our community small, random acts of kindness can have a ripple effect of epic proportions.”

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