Getting green with the Machine
Story by Gregg McQueen
Photos by Gregg McQueen and The Zeno Group
“People say that you can’t farm in the South Bronx,” said Stephen Ritz, a teacher and administrator at Hyde Leadership Charter School on Bryant Avenue.
And Ritz should know.
Using a unique tower garden, he and his students are producing their own vegetables and fruits right in the classroom, in a lesson on healthy and sustainable living.
“We’re growing our own cucumbers, tomatoes, strawberries, carrots and lettuce,” said Ritz, “as well as mint, gourmet herbs, wheatgrass and more.”
Ritz was motivated to start his program as a response to the unhealthy eating habits of schoolchildren.
“This area has some of the highest rates of juvenile diabetes and child obesity in the nation,” he said.
“We need to fix that, and healthy food is what creates healthy minds and bodies.”
In the South Bronx, where access to organically grown, fresh food can be limited, Ritz’s solution was to have his students grow crops themselves.
Now Hyde kids are enjoying their own produce from the tower garden — or, as the students have nicknamed it, “Green Bronx Machine” — munching on veggies in class and bringing some home for their families.
Ritz said that it’s important to teach children about healthy food at an early age, when they tend to respond to colorful foods.
“They’re more interested in vegetables if we teach them to ‘eat across the rainbow,'” he explained.
“And once they try a vegetable, they’ll realize they actually like it.”
Hyde second-grader Jayda Norman said that she now enjoys eating broccoli, cucumbers and corn, but before Ritz’s program she “didn’t touch” vegetables.
Her classmate Romeo agreed, “I actually like carrots and lettuce now.”
Jayda’s mother, Raphealata Norman, said that the tower garden has had an impact beyond the classroom.
“We’re eating a lot healthier at home now,” she remarked. “It’s been an inspiration.”
Andres, another second grader, said that working with the tower garden has inspired him to read about plants and science outside of school.
In addition to three towers at Hyde, Ritz’s students have access to additional garden units through a partnership with JVL Wildcat Academy, a charter high school in Hunts Point.
Hyde classes have an arrangement with JVL Principal Marc Donald to make weekly visits to the high school, which has 20 towers, a hydroponic table and a culinary program where the kids can prepare food with crops they have grown.
Ritz said that numerous Hyde programs have also been aided by AdoptAClassroom.org, a national organization that collects and distributes funds to educators for classroom resources.
The educator added that Green Bronx Machine has improved academic performance at Hyde and increased participation in school activities.
“We’re also moving kids from being consumers to being producers, which is huge for sustaining our future environment,” said Ritz.
“It really changes the way the children see their place in the world and relationship to nature.”
Though consumers often lament the high cost of healthy, organic food, the tower garden offers an affordable solution for acquiring nutritious sustenance.
As Ritz explained, “You can get a hundred seeds for under a dollar.”
The tower itself is actually a low-tech, vertical system designed to allow users to grow fresh fruits and vegetables at home.
“There’s no need for soil — just water, seeds and air,” said Ritz.
Seeds are placed in small pods on the tower exterior, and water is pumped through the device at regular intervals.
Crops planted in the tower garden grow faster than they would in regular soil. Each tower can grow about 20 plants at a time, and many vegetables are ready to be eaten in about three weeks.
The students help place the seeds, maintain the health of the plants and harvest the crops that grow.Romeo remarked, “I never thought we’d be creating vegetables at school, especially in New York City.”
The tower units can easily be assembled, broken down and cleaned, said Ritz. “This is basic stuff that any kid can be an expert at, and that can be replicated at other schools or in homes,” he commented.
And Green Bronx Machine is starting to get big attention.
“Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr. has visited the school and eaten our vegetables,” said Ritz.
The Disney Channel and TNT networks have profiled Green Bronx Machine, and grass seed manufacturer Scotts recently came in to film a commercial with Hyde students.
“People all over the nation are looking at what we’re doing as a model, right here in the Bronx,” said Ritz.
This fall, Hyde students will set up a farmers market outside the school to market crops, and Ritz plans to incorporate more of their vegetables into the food served in the cafeteria.
“I really feel like we’re growing healthy, intelligent children here, ” Ritz said.
“That’s my favorite kind of crop — organically grown citizens.”
The school’s website is http://www.hydebronxny.org/.
To learn more about making donations to support classroom programs, visit http://www.adoptaclassroom.org.