Stephen Ritz: Raising Edible Walls in Harlem

Ritz's student, Nathali Soriano, against the edible wall.

From down the hallway at the Renaissance Charter High School for Innovation in Harlem, Stephen Ritz, in slouchy khakis and a half-tucked shirt, looks more like a student than a teacher. As he comes closer, his shaved head shines under the glare of fluorescent lights and he becomes much taller than the average high school student, standing in all his glory at 6 feet 3 inches tall.

When he reaches us, he doesn’t even break his stride. He walks right past us and waves for us to follow, saying simply, “lets go.” It was like being a student on The Magic School Bus.

This is Ritz’s second day at Innovation High so it took him a while to find the roof. “Where are the stairs to the roof,” Ritz asks one sour faced guard. The guard had no clue. He asks the other guard standing by the metal-detector student scanners. That guard pointed us to the wrong set of stairs that dead-end on floor five. We started back at floor two again. Ritz was out of breath.

Finally we were directed to the proper stairs that had roof access without a fire alarm. The paint on the walls is chipped. There is a freshly crushed apple on the first step and empty potato chip wrappers on the next. Ritz likes to refer to chips as one of the “biggest bullies in school,” along with all the other fatty, unhealthy foods that dominate the diet both in his school and in the entire neighborhood.

Ritz hikes up his khakis as he climbed the stairs. He has lost some weight. “I need some suspenders to attach to my thong to hold my pants up now,” he laughs. “I hope this is the way,” he adds, reaching the third set of stairs, puffing out air. Ritz is going to need to learn the correct stairway very soon. After all, it leads to his classroom.

Stephen Ritz is an urban farmer. He has turned his classroom into a farm and the roof we step out onto is about to become one of the largest food producing facilities in Manhattan. His students go by the name “Green Bronx Machine” because they literally pump out enough vegetables and fruit to feed 450 people. Though Ritz credits his students with all the success— “my students are the orchestra, I am just the conductor”— it is evident that he brought the music, wrote the songs and taught his students how to play.

Standing with his arms out spinning around on the rooftop, Ritz looked like an excited child on Christmas morning. From the roof you can see the Ward’s Island Bridge and to the right are the 12 buildings that make up the housing projects. The garbage trucks are lined up on the streets below. New York City Sanitation Department is across the street. It feels like the end of the world on the school roof in East Harlem, just at the edge of the East River. Some would call it a wasteland. Ritz sees it as fertile – a sight full of a hope and a promise.

The rooftop is an expansive space, about 2800 square feet, and Ritz, having just moved to this school, is allowed to use all of it for growing. But as of right now, there’s nothing here but an old shovel and a few wooden boxes with dried plants. He has a lot of work to do before it becomes the Garden of Eden he envisions it to be. “We are gonna put the vertical walls over here and maybe some plants growing up the side of the fence here, maybe a work bench over here.” Ritz maintains the move will allow for “critical learnings that will ultimately enable me to replicate this model across NYC and back home in my beloved Borough of the Bronx.”

“It’s my intellectual Viagra,” Ritz yells out excitedly during his Ted Talk, “I love this stuff.” This stuff is the stuff of urban farming and it has brought him a long way.

Ritz was raised by supportive Jewish parents in the Bronx, just off Gun Hill Road on Tryon Avenue. He attended PS 94. It was during a time Ritz describes as “white flight; my neighborhood changed dramatically during my youth, he could quote both Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King as well as all sorts of protest music and sports trivia.” Seems as if social advocacy and justice has always been on his mind.

Up until a few weeks ago, Ritz worked at Discovery High School in the Bronx. There he made the most progress with urban farming inside his classroom and many of his students who started the first Green Bronx Machine group at Discovery remain in close contact with Ritz.

In 2009, after restoring a garden in Harlem, Ritz and a few of his students were invited to receive an award on the set of Good Morning America. It just so happened that George Irwin was also on the show that morning.

George Irwin, the Founder of Green Light Technologies, is the guy who invented edible walls or vertical urban farming. Manufactured from aluminum and stainless steel, Irwin’s walls are small compartments filed with soil that fit together to cover entire walls and allow water to steep downward from the top in order for plants to grow out of the wall.

Irwin was so impressed with Ritz’s young students from the Bronx that they partnered up. As Ritz puts it, “my horizontal farmers met his vertical farms and it was love at first sight.”

The teenagers were trained by Ritz’s company so they could start making their own vertical walls and even put a unique spin on them—wheels. “One of my teammates came up with the idea of putting the wall on wheels so we could move it around,” remembers former student, Nathali Soriano, 19. The students started to move the walls into other classrooms so it could be a learning experience for all.

“Steven was able to use our technology,” says Pamela Werts, Director of Sales at Green Living Technologies, “and pull his children together with it.” Werts was present at the training Green Living Technologies held for the students in upstate New York and could not believe what she saw. “I know that some of these kids wouldn’t even be in the same room as one another.” Gang affiliations and turf wars in the Bronx are just as much apart of the place as baggy pants and funky fresh beats. “But then,” says Werts, “I saw them designing and planning out walls together” She was amazed.

Things just got bigger from there. They had green markets at school for parents and teachers. They built more community gardens that produced free vegetables for people in Harlem and the Bronx. The group reached 3200 “likes” on Facebook. Whole Foods was calling. CNN was calling. TED Talks wanted Ritz. Jamie Oliver wanted him. Then rich people called.

Green Bronx Machine traveled to the Hamptons to build the vertical walls on people’s roofs. In New York City, they built a wall inside the Empire State Building and inside NBC’s Experience Store at Rockefeller Plaza. There have been visits from senators and commendations by City Council members. Accolades and scholarships for Ritz’s students have poured in. “Steve was showing them a life that if you work hard and reach your dreams there is still a life beyond the Bronx,” says Werts, “a whole new world.”

“The expectation for young men from the Bronx is to stay in the neighborhood and never come out of it,” says Soriano. Ritz’s students have had the chance to get out of the neighborhood and see some beautiful and historic places. Now, they aim to make the Bronx beautiful too.

Now at Innovation High, Ritz is mentoring new teachers and designing curriculum that uses urban farming in classrooms. His Green Bronx Machine group has 15 students who work with him on the roof.

On the roof during lunchtime a crowd has gathered, Ritz sings “I’m bringing sexy back” and everyone laughs. It is just one of the unorthodox and just plane goofy things he does that are apart of his teaching style.

In his TedTalk, Ritz admits to being “the oldest sixth grader you will ever meet; so I get up everyday with this tremendous amount of enthusiasm. “

Ritz’s age is unknown among his students. He refuses to tell. “I am as young as 30 and as old as 75,” smiles Ritz, “I was Jesus’ schoolmate and was there for the First Depression.” Ritz uses this line on his students like a comedian and he says it gets a laugh. As long as it gets them to open a book and look these things up, no applause is necessary.

“I don’t know what kind of magic he works but his system is very magical,” says friend and now partner in sustainable construction, Jim Ellenberger. “He gets them to pass their regents, he gets some of them into college.”

When Ellenberg, 46, a contractor who owns his own construction business based in the Bronx, heard about what his friend, Ritz was doing, he saw a business opportunity. What if Ritz’s students, who were already trained in building the walls by Green Living Technologies, came to work for him?

A job came up for low-income affordable housing in the Bronx. Ellenberger hired Ritz’s students. He trained them to build with all kinds of materials. The students were building housing in their community, for their community. Things had come full circle.

But getting a job wasn’t the only problem in the Bronx Ritz is trying to solve.

“At out supermarket in the Bronx,” describes longtime friend Susan Ventura, 46, a mother of four and a resident of the Bronx, “there is an entire aisle devoted to Little Debbie products, but the produce aisle is a half an aisle of shriveled up lettuce.” The Bronx is weighed down by the largest obesity rates – 68 percent compared to 57.9 percent in Manhattan, according to the New York State Department of Health.

Ritz himself has lost over 70 pounds after he swore off the junk food and started eating more of what he was growing in class. “I got tired of being the big fat white guy,” says a proud Ritz who eagerly shares his new weight with anyone who will listen. 190 pounds. Ritz is hoping that shedding a few of his own pounds will motivate his students to eat better. That will be difficult though. Just two blocks from the high school doors lie an array of every fast food joint you can think of. They don’t just make up the predominant food group in the area, they are the entire food chain.

Green carts sprinkled on a few sidewalk corners, however, mark a change in food options and a new demand from residents.

Chili peppers and tomatoes are a big hit with his Mexican American students get to bring those home. “I don’t get phone calls from grandmothers when their kids get into a fight at school,” laughs Ritz, “but I get a phone call from grandmothers when their kids bring home chili peppers for the salsa.”

Not all of Ritz’s students have families. Most of them have learning disabilities or psychological issues or are in foster care. Those are the kind of kids Ritz loves. “I remember when I was a basketball coach,” Ritz shares, “I always got the fat kids. I want the underdogs.”

Nadje Maeueau, 19, was an underdog. Immigrating to America with his uncle when he was 12-years-old from the Ivory Coast, Maeueai was abused and beaten by his uncle and ended up in the foster care system. When he first met Ritz, Maeueai thought to himself, “look at this white guy with his big belly.” Ritz, who also trains students from foster care agencies to join Green Bronx Machine, taught Maeueai about the edible walls and accepted him into the student group. Maeueai then got a job with Ellenberger working construction.

Ritz attributes his success to access. The gardens are located at school where children have to be anyway. It is completely integrated into their lives; it is making them feel better and earn money. Ritz points out that “you can’t box your way through a math test or shoot baskets through statistics.”

As a child living in the Bronx was in the late 1970’s when the arson epidemic caused by the total economic collapse of the South Bronx left streets lined with singed skeletons of burnt out buildings. “We have come from dark places,” says Ritz. Where the rest of the world sees the Bronx and Harlem as where everything that is wrong with society occurs, Ritz believes this is not so.

Werts says, “green is not just going to be a fad, it is becoming more mandated,” and Ritz’s kids are ahead of the game, for once.

Ritz called last Tuesday during his lunch break to talk about how it’s going. “I love the new school,” he reports, “we just moved all the equipment for the edible walls to the roof this past Saturday.” Just then a burst of children can be heard in the background. “Uh-oh I guess the kids eat lunch in this room, let me move,” says Ritz. He is still getting to know the place.

Ritz talks about his plans to get the kids up to the roof in the upcoming week. Suddenly someone interrupts him. “What,” asks Ritz, “who is Mud Baron,” he asks. Mud Baron is big on Twitter and travels the country advocating for gardening within public schools.

Ritz returns to the phone. “I have to go, Mud Baron is outside with a thousand plants.”

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