Urban farmer Stephen Ritz tells SIBF’s young audience that his mission is to grow vegetables
Ritz has been empowering students to take responsibility for their health back home in America, and takes to the Sharjah International Book Fair stage to inspire the UAE’s children & youth
He owns the world’s largest shovel and was visibly disappointed that he couldn’t fit it in the plane and bring it to Sharjah to show it off to his young audience at the 38th Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF).
While he works tirelessly to reduce the carbon footprint and is militant about conserving the environment. The famous urban farmer from South Bronx in the US, Stephen Ritz, took center stage at the SIBF in a packed ballroom of UAE school children. The founder of the Green Bronx Machine, which has been steadily advocating healthy eating in schools and underserved communities, and a self-proclaimed CEO – Chief Eternal Optimist, Ritz is also the author of The Power of a Plant.
He told his young audience to take responsibility for their own health by watching what they eat because, “food, is non-negotiable. You can’t perform well, if you are not eating well”, “So, without farmers we will all go hungry. In our world affected by massive climate change, growing populations and diminishing resources, being able to grow food efficaciously and quickly and safely and locally creates opportunities for the next generation”.
Being a sustainable education teacher has only been the reality of Ritz’s life for the past 35 years. It came as a surprise for his audience to learn that there was a time in this ex-athlete’s life when he weighed over 300 pounds.
His habits were greatly influenced by his peer group, children who were getting sicker and fatter eating what was available in the local community, primarily “store-bought manufactured synthetic food”, he noted.
The stark realities of his life and the children living in his neighbourhood prompted Ritz to become an educator and an advocate as he lamented the food shifts. He said, “now I grow 37 kinds of fruits and vegetables indoors with my students. We have together developed school gardens. Children are at the bottom of the food chain. Therefore, they need to understand and be empowered. You are the gatekeepers for equity and opportunity. I know, some of you, young people in future, will solve some of the world’s biggest problems and have solutions for things like this, to make this world a better place”.
Ritz and his students have grown more than 85,000 pounds of vegetables in the South Bronx, and in the process, Stephen has increased school attendance from 40 percent to 93 percent daily, over and above providing 2,200 youth jobs in the Bronx.
“We need to get communities back to eating healthy and fresh foods, making eating real food a ‘revolutionary act’. And science is not something you learn or teach. Science is what we do. We need to create farms of the future using science”, he said to his young audience passionately.
Stephen is responsible for creating the first edible classroom in the world, which he has evolved into the National Health, Wellness and Learning Center. A replica of his classroom was installed in the US Botanic Gardens in Washington, DC. His curriculum is being used in hundreds of schools across the United States, and internationally from Colombia to Dubai, from Canada to Cairo, and beyond.