The Bronx Green Machine Goes 'Above and Beyond'

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The sweet smell of basil drifted down the hallways of Discovery High School in late May. Parents, teachers, and neighbors anxiously chased the scent down to classroom 279, where Steven Ritz and his science classes hosted a Farmers Market and Edible Plant Sale.

At the event, guests were not only able to purchase a selection of fresh veggies, plants, and flowers, but also learn about the unique science curriculum Ritz has created.

“This is my portable science lab,” Ritz explained. “Unlike software that gets outdated and textbooks which are expensive; this room is a constant learning resource.” Ritz says he started bringing plants into the classroom in order to give his students a hands on lesson. But what began as a science teacher’s teaching tool has now grown into a mission to make the entire borough eat and grow healthy food.

Ritz, recent winner of ABC’s Above and Beyond Award (which will air on ABC on June 18th at 7 p.m.), explains that the Green Bronx Machine (the new name for his holistic “green” empowerment program) is much more than just part of his class. “I have students in my classroom before and after school,” Ritz says. “It just goes to show you the real interest they have.”

The biology and earth science teacher began using farming and gardening in his classes in 2005. Back then, Ritz said he used to take his classes outside to clean up abandoned lots and plant gardens. “We cleaned up 35-50 cubic yards of trash and ended up growing 3,000-5,000 pounsa of food,” Ritz said. In addition, Ritz said that the students involved in what was then called the Green Team, went from skipping half of their classes to graduating on time.

Discovery student Steven Portes admits that “wasn’t really into it” when he first learned about plants and gardening in Ritz’s class two years ago.” But later he decided to join the Green Bronx Machine and realized that being part of the program made him actually want to come to school.

“It really motivated me,” he says, adding that before he joined the program he was not going to be able to graduate on time. But now, Portes has passed the biology Regents exam and will graduate in the coming weeks.

Ritz utilizes a unique gardening technology created by Green Living Technologies in Boston, in which the students plant seeds in vertical shelves, which stand in the back of the classroom.

Produce Pete of Weekend Today on WNBC, who attended the market, said that for too long people have said: “I’d like to grow stuff, but I don’t have enough space.” This technology proves that lack of space is no longer a valid excuse.

“I’m just amazed,” he said, with tomato in hand. “This is more than just growing stuff, this is keeping the kids off the streets and helping them find something to do. This teaches them responsibility, and how to take care of something.”

“We’re not just growing vegetable, we’re growing citizens and engaged communities,” Ritz said.

“You have no idea how many lives are affected by this program,” Discovery student Netali Sorian said. “So many people who are used to the street life come here and get a whole new perspective.”

Students say their success has been validated by all the attention they have received. “People outside our schools want us to show them how to use and build this kind of technology,” said 16-year-old Stephen Barnes .

Ritz said Green Bronx Machine is the youngest certified workforce in America. Students who wish to join the workforce can participate in a training program, sponsored by Green Living Technologies, in order to become certified workers. The training program has three components: academic, vocational and field work.

After completing the training program and receiving a certificate from the Bronx Borough President, students are hired to work in all sorts of locations. Last summer Portes went from the South Bronx to the South Hamptons, where he was hired to plant roof gardens and other green technology.

“It’s about green minds, green hearts, green jobs, and green technology,” Ritz says. “We are trying to transform the borough. Bronx County has the highest number of food stamps in New York State,” Ritz explained. “People can use these food stamps to buy edible plants and create a self sustaining indoor garden.” Ritz and his Green Bronx Machine hope to get everyone in the Bronx eating and growing healthy foods.

The Green Bronx Machine is getting ready for their national launch on June 22, from 6 to 9 p.m. at Caf