SOUTH BRONX (PIX11) – Life lessons from a Bronx teacher’s personal health struggle have transformed into an entire plant-based curriculum for students across the nation.
The Green Bronx Machine was born in a classroom at PS 55 in the South Bronx. Teacher Stephen Ritz has since received accolades from former first lady Michelle Obama, Oprah, and Pope Francis. His lesson is focused on nutrition and teaching children what it would take to burn off the food and drinks they consume.
“Imagine, just eating junk food, I was over 330 pounds at my heaviest,” Ritz told PIX11 News on Monday.
In 2011, Ritz had a heart attack in his classroom – in front of his 16-year-old daughter.
“It was right then and there when I looked into my daughter’s eyes as I went down and woke up in the emergency room that [I realized] things had to change,” Ritz said.
So the teacher tried a plant-based diet.
“I decided to only eat the food that I was growing with kids in school, and in seven months lost 110 pounds,” he said.
Ritz is spreading his love of life-saving vegetables, one seed at a time, through classrooms of hydroponic gardens grown from his nonprofit, the Green Bronx Machine.
The setup is now in 675 schools across the country and overseas, including 100 in New York City, where Ritz also serves on Mayor Eric Adams’ food transition team. Roughly 275,000 students are learning his curriculum, planting the seed for so much more than just farming.
“They think they’re here to farm, but what they’re really learning to do is read, write, do the math, do the advocacy, understand cycles, record data,” Ritz said.
The teacher also has a YouTube show, “Let’s Learn with Mister Ritz,” which shares the science behind healing foods and includes voices from the classroom inside PS 55 where it all started.
But Ritz said the need for healthy food in the Bronx is indicative of the need across the nation, and he’s determined to grow something greater to fight hunger worldwide.
“The most important school supply in the world is food because children will never be well-read if they’re not well-fed,” Ritz said.
So kids end up leaving his classroom knowing how important it is to move their body and even more important about what they put inside their body.