No one knows that I have been secretly auditioning people to fill the role of a horticultural incarnation of the "Music Man" immortalized in the 1962 movie adaption of a musical by Meredith Wilson. The story setting is 1912.
Skin colors need updating but just use your imagination for the color composition of the 2016 band musicians. Let's also change the uniform color from red to green. Turn the sound up if you can and get your blood flowing faster.
I beleive we have found just the man to play the part of the leader of the band, the "Music Man of School Green". His name is Stephen Ritz. I'll follow him anywhere as band leader and Chief Eternal Optimist (CEO).
I experienced a number of spellbinders in my corporate life before my career change. The ability to speak at this motivational level is rare and hard to learn unless you are born with it or undergo a life-changing experience.
This is the TEDx talk that made Stephen the talk of the town back in 2012. Note the TEDx logo in back of him. It is a planter box made by Frieda Lim, a consulting client, friend and talented creator of a rooftop garden atop her home in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn. She grew the plants in the logo planter from seed and nurtured them in a studio in her home.
She calls her rooftop SIP garden "Slippery Slope Farm", a sly reference to the fact that her garden is on the slope just below Park Slope, home of Bill de Blasio, current Mayor of NYC and Chuck Schumer, US Senator.
Her garden is a sight to behold. In the summer it is a dazzling array of vegetable plants and edible flowers It is arguably the most productive and hygienic residential rooftop garden in NYC. It is unfortunate that it is not available for the public to see.
This is the TEDx talk that Stephen refers to in the interview following as his favorite Ted Talk.
Read the interview below. Stephen shares some information about his personal life that I did not know. It is most inspiring. We need hundreds (make that 1,000's) more educators and motivators like Steve. He used to be obese weighing 300 pounds. You can see by the photo above he has lost most of it. I hardly recognize him now compared to when I last saw him.
Stephen has also recognized the value and need for new technology for growing food in schools and all of urban society. The tower gardens he is standing among have long amazed me. Read more from the IUG archives here, here, and here,
Stephen Ritz is an educator in the South Bronx and the founder of the Green Bronx Machine. The self-proclaimed CEO, or Chief Eternal Optimist, of the Bronx, he is a tireless advocate for healthy eating in schools and underserved communities. By growing gardens in schools in the South Bronx, Stephen works to create healthy students, communities, and cities.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with him about his work in the South Bronx, the opportunities that come out of school gardens, and food policy.
New York City Food Policy Center (FPC): What motivated you to get involved with food policy and to become a food policy advocate?
Stephen Ritz (SR): The realities of my life and my students’ lives. I ballooned to over 300 pounds as an ex-athlete simply by eating what was available in the local community. My habits, which were really informed by the students, were killing me. Over the course of my 30-plus years of being an educator I am seeing kids getting sicker and fatter. And I am appalled at what is happening to kids. I am seeing the onset of puberty in girls coming at much younger ages than I did 30 years ago. The stark realities of my life and my students’ lives in the South Bronx prompted me to become a food policy advocate.
It was simple. The realities of my life as an educator demanded that I start looking at the connection between food and education and become an advocate for kids. Also, the way I see kids in high-need, low-income communities being marketed to, not only the by food industry but overall, demanded that I stick my neck out and move us from being consumers to becoming producers—really determining and advocating for and contributing to our destiny. I am a voice for the voiceless. Children are often at the bottom of the food chain, and that needs to change. Kids need to be empowered!
And who knew that we could grow food? That was the coolest thing. I had no idea we could grow food. Ten years ago I couldn’t tell you 10 kinds of vegetables and now I grow 37 kinds of fruits and vegetables indoors with my kids, en route to outstanding academic performance and changing health outcomes. What could be more spectacular? Crisis equals opportunity! These aren’t challenges; these are opportunities dressed in work clothes, and I believe that my kids are poised, ready, willing, and able to change their destiny if given the opportunity. So we’ve got to create that opportunity, make that opportunity, and acknowledge that opportunity. That opportunity is here and this is our moment!
FPC: How did you get involved with school gardens? Were you always drawn to gardening?
SR: No! I got involved with school gardens by mistake, but by absolute necessity. Was I always drawn to gardening? Absolutely not. There’s a part of me that loathes it but loves the results. But at the end of the day it’s about planting seeds, and my children are my seeds. For me, seeds represent genetic potential and my goal is to make sure all my students and all my colleagues reach their G-d given genetic potential.