He is known as 'America’s Favourite Teacher,' Steve Ritz, who works in one of America’s poorest neighbourhoods, has seen daily attendance in the schools he works within improve from 40% to 93%, as well as the provision of over 2,000 youth jobs in the underprivileged South Bronx district of New York City.
Ritz is an award winning gardener and educator, who recently won the EPA Award for "transforming mindsets and landscapes" in New York. More recently he also won a standing ovation after speaking in Dubai at the KHDA's 'What Works' series explaining what he has done to engineer such remarkable change.
Ritz told the audience: “Children should not have to leave their neighbourhood to live, learn and earn in a better way. In the back of my classroom, something is always growing. In order to be well read, you have to be well fed and we all need to grow healthier schools,” he told the audience.
"It all started with seeds which transformed into farms. We ended up creating the first edible wall in New York City with the help of school students and people started taking notice.
"When students changed ordinary classrooms into green spaces, there was no looking back,” he says.
Today the district is transformed thanks to Ritz's programme, The Green Bronx Machine. The programme now produces over 30,000 pounds of vegetables, allowing the school to not only sell its produce to the wider community, but also provide students with weekly vegetables, and supply the school kitchens.
The equipment used by the programme is hi-tech and aligned to the American common core curriculum. He says, “We want students to read about it, write about it and blog about it, do the science and math and along the way discover what healthy food is.”
Ritz says, “initially I tried constructing the systems myself, but it just wasn’t cost effective,” so now the project invests in some of the newest technology available.
While the project does work outdoors utilising empty lots, spaces and roofs as growing beds, much of the most productive gardening is done indoors using 21st Century vertical systems. This not only produces significant amounts of food using minimal space and water, but allows the programme to harvest produce throughout the year.
When asked if the same technology could be used in the extreme climate of UAE, Ritz said, “a lot of the indoor systems we use would be perfect for Dubai.”
He then went on to highlight some of the new technologies such as LED lighting, waste water use, air-conditioning water systems and ‘net-zero-water farming, which he believes would all work well in Dubai.
Mouza Al-Suwaidi, Chief of Engagement at KHDA said at the event, “many schools in Dubai have already created their own green space and started growing fruits and vegetables successfully inside school farms. It is inspiring to see passionate teachers sending a positive message to students and parents. Many of these learners are seeing food grow right in front of them for the first time.”
Steve Ritz's Tips For Helping Your School Start Their Garden
1/ Start small
2/. Support teachers
3/ Let children take ownership
4/ Use it to support weaker children and teachers