Book Review: The Power of a Plant
In the poorest congressional district in the country and in the least healthful county in New York State, there is still cause for celebration – particularly when it involves students who defy odds and thrive. In The Power of a Plant (Rodale, May, 2017) by globally acclaimed teacher Stephen Ritz, you are taken on a journey chronicling changes in his Bronx community, making ‘epic’ happen with soil, seeds and students.
Throughout, Ritz notes some of the most compelling stories he categorizes as collisions, connections and co-learning. You see the transformation of an industrial eyesore into a rooftop garden, resulting in a 100% graduation rate for those high school gardeners (Green Teens) in a place where the rate earlier topped out at 17%. Ritz and his students install a garden wall and he teaches in the first edible classroom, changing the way the students learn about food, nutrition, science and the culinary arts (ultimately leading to his own health turnaround). And, the catalyst for the ultimate formation of his nonprofit, Green Bronx Machine was a chance invitation to give a talk for TEDxManhattan from Change Food founder, Diane Hatz, where he and his students stood on stage and received a standing ovation.
Ritz launched the first National Health, Wellness, and Learning Center in a 100-year old building, CS 55 in the South Bronx, in a neighborhood where you are more likely to see liquor, Lotto and cigarettes being sold than healthful offerings from a green grocer. This is the home of the Green Bronx Machine, where Ritz is joined by a volunteer team made up of his wife, Lizette and daughter, Michaela. They transformed the school’s library to a place where butterflies are hatched, worms are tended and spin bikes power blenders that make healthful smoothies. A kitchen has been installed here and the students get monthly cooking lessons from former White House chef, Bill Yosses, where they often use the produce they grow onsite.
Ritz’s look at food and farming as the intersection of nature and culture shows implications for having far-reaching and positive impacts on our health care, issues of hunger and poverty, waste reduction, response to climate change, sustainability and making resource allocation more equitable.
“I grow vegetables, but my vegetables grow students, schools and communities.”
While based in the Bronx, you’ll hear how Ritz has taken his message of the Green Bronx Machine around the globe – to Amish country, Dubai, to the White House, the Vatican City, across Canada and more, and when possible, the students accompany him on these field trips. His work with Gotham Greens, or with social entrepreneur, Majora Carter is a testament to his collaborative efforts to achieve a triple bottom line of people, planet and profits.
If you’ve ever heard Stephen Ritz in person, you’ll get that same enthusiastic, upbeat and accessible voice with vivid details in this remarkable book, one I’m convinced will rank as one of the most inspirational of all time. You’ll hear the authentic portrayal of ¡Si, se puede! (Yes, we can!) the mantra that Ritz, the Chief Eternal Optimist (CEO) and the Green Bronx Machine embody.
“Fifty thousand pounds of vegetables later, my favorite crop is organically grown citizens who are growing and eating themselves into good health and amazing opportunities.”
The proceeds from the sale of the book will support the work of the Green Bronx Machine, greenbronxmachine.org.