© 2024 New Hampshire Public Radio

Persons with disabilities who need assistance accessing NHPR's FCC public files, please contact us at publicfile@nhpr.org.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Purchase your tickets now for a chance to win $35k toward a new car or $25k in cash, and our next prize of an electric bike!

How A Great Teacher Cultivates Veggies (And Kids) In The Bronx — In 17 Photos

Things to know about Stephen Ritz, one of NPR's 50 Great Teachers:

He and his students made bow ties out of Scrabble tiles.

Elissa Nadworny / NPR

His Bronx classroom, a refurbished school library, has more plants than desks.

He calls the room his National Health, Wellness and Learning Center. It's got tower gardens, gleaming cabinets and counters, an industrial sink and a new, mobile cooking station.

Elissa Nadworny / NPR

"In this class, we go from seed to tower to table to plate in 20 feet," Ritz says.

"What we're seeing is kids coming in here, getting excited about healthy food — about vegetables. About beans. Who knew beans could be so exciting, but they are!"

Ritz founded the nonprofit Green Bronx Machine, planting community gardens all over the Bronx.

Though he's often at school six days a week, he's paid for just one. He says it's his wife who makes ends meet.

Elissa Nadworny / NPR

Ritz teaches science in the nation's poorest congressional district, at Community School 55 in the South Bronx.

The neighborhood is a food desert, where Ritz says it's easier to buy liquor than lettuce. He calls the food options a M.E.S.S. — "a manufactured, edible synthetic substance that comes in a Ziploc, hermetically sealed bag with infinite shelf life."

Ritz's goal: send students home with 100 bags of fresh, school-grown fruits and vegetables a week, 50 weeks a year.

In the afternoon, Ritz hosts a fourth-grade cooking class. On the menu: vegetarian chili.

Elissa Nadworny / NPR

Everyone gets a cooking hat, though not like Mister Ritz's (he wears the cheesehead as a self-described "cheeseball").

The kids are told to hold a knife like they're shaking a hand, and hold the pepper with their fingers curled into a bear claw.

Elissa Nadworny / NPR

Fifth-grader Ernest Fields calls Ritz "Father Nature."

At CS55, Ritz helps other teachers, too. He pops into one classroom for a quick science lesson on owl pellets.

Elissa Nadworny / NPR

"You're gonna take apart this mouth poop," Ritz asks the class, feigning disgust, "and put it back together again and make real skeletons?"

On his way out, he asks: "How many of you like science?" When they all raise their hands, "I love it," he says, "more nerds." The kids chant:

After school, Ritz hosts another cooking class, for kids and their parents.

Elissa Nadworny / NPR

Jeffrey Haywood (far left) brings his grandson, Cori (far right), a third-grader. Haywood says he can't believe what Ritz is trying to do here. When he was a kid, Haywood says, "we didn't have no plants growing in no schools. If anything, we was trying to get into the schools."

Ritz got his green thumb many years ago while teaching at a Bronx high school. Someone sent him a box of daffodil bulbs. Not knowing what to do with them, he stashed them behind a radiator.

Elissa Nadworny / NPR

A few weeks later, a fight broke out. Ritz says one student ran to the radiator because, he assumed, the boy had hidden a weapon there. Instead, he found "hundreds of flowers busting out of this box. And the kid, instead of coming out to beat someone's behind, came out with a box of flowers. The class burst out laughing."

Ritz says he had an epiphany. He and his students went on to plant some 20,000 bulbs across New York that year.

The lesson, Ritz says, is that a seed well-planted can grow into something beautiful anywhere.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.
Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.
Related Content

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.