The Food Ed Coalition Spotlight Series highlights people and organizations doing amazing work in food education and access in NYC. Find more from the series on the Food Ed Hub.
Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.
Interview with Stephen Ritz, founder of Green Bronx Machine.
Check out Part 2 of our interview!
Can you tell us a little bit about your career path and passions that led you to Green Bronx Machine?
My career path is what I call ‘falling up the ladder of success,’ and it’s largely rooted in just wanting to leave the world a little better than how I found it and thinking how can I enhance the lives of those that I touch on a daily basis. It’s about putting unity into my community. For decades I have been working with the most marginalized youth in all of New York City and realized I had a gift. That gift was credibility with them. I walk the same streets, I listen to the same music, I eat the same foods, I have the same interests. I’m a lifelong Bronxite. All the wonderful things that come with the Bronx and also some of the environmental and social realities that have plagued me and my family. So I get it really well.
This work started at the core of what I do. I’m an equity warrior. A voice for the voiceless. I fight for the children who were born into situations that many people would not want to be caught dead in. I’m determined to leave them, and it, a little better. I have a gift with kids and a gift with community and a gift with relationships, and I’m determined to leverage that into something greater. I’m not a farmer by trade, I’m not a scientist, I have no agricultural background. But this work is about cultivation. You can’t go from seed to harvest without cultivation in the middle. So I’m a citizen farmer, I’m growing children, I’m growing people, I’m growing schools. I believe that the greatest lever this nation has towards ending poverty and creating equity is through public education. At the heart of what I do, I’m an advocate for public schools.
I believe the most important school supply in the world is food. You can’t teach children who are hungry, you can’t teach children who are malnourished. And whether it’s in the states or a third-world country, try teaching a child whose stomach is growling. In my 30 years, what am I seeing? I’m seeing children get sicker, fatter. I’m seeing the first generation of children who will not outlive their parents simply with what they’re eating. We’re seeing the celebritization of food into communities, the marketing to children in ways that have become so shameful and insidious. This should not be non-profit work. It should be policy. Advocating for children, the best interests of public education, and public health and nutrition should not be the work of nonprofits. It should just be common sense, it should be a given. We shouldn’t have to be screaming at the top of our lungs for it.
I believe the most important school supply in the world is food. You can’t teach children who are hungry, you can’t teach children who are malnourished.
We’re an organization with a teeny tiny budget. We have one employee, two part-time consultants, and the rest is people power. No paid social media. The results that we get come from galvanizing our community at home. No one should be making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year serving the poor. Not only are we under-resourced, we’re over-extracted. What I’m advocating for is not the work of nonprofits. What I’m advocating for should be the basic policy of public schools.
What impact does Green Bronx Machine have on food education practice and policy?
First and foremost, the technology that we brought to the table, is now in 7,500 schools across America. I don’t believe in these big fancy systems, I really believe in keeping it manageable for teachers because, at the end of the day, teachers change lives. It’s not about perpetuating our model and our professional development or a fee-for-service model. We are tired of seeing organizations get fat and fed off of the dysfunction within marginalized communities. It’s about giving teachers tools to do amazing things with children that get them excited. Oh, and by the way, you can grow a copious amount of food, particularly in communities that have limited means and limited access to it. That’s the recipe. Children will never be well-read if they’re not well-fed. GBM does not have tiered subscriptions or annualized fees - our low-cost services are offered into perpetuity with lifetime site licenses - very disruptive - and all our services including the in-class garden technologies can be covered by existing grants - either through the NYC Department of Education, Whole Kids Foundation and countless others. In fact, we just won the 2021 Social Innovation Award.
What is an important lesson you have learned while working with Green Bronx Machine?
The degree to which we resist injustice is the degree to which we are all free. I’m only as good as my best day at work. It’s a collective. It really is a collective. This work is hard. It requires courage. It really requires courage. And the opposite of courage is not cowardness. The opposite of courage is conformity because even a dead fish can go with the flow. We are not dead fish in the South Bronx, we are swimming.
Learn more about Green Bronx Machine:
TV Series: Let’s Learn with Mister Ritz!