Bright Spots in the Food System
Last week at the second annual Food Tank Summit in Washington, DC, Karen Washington, an urban farmer and activist who is the co-founder of Black Urban Growers as well as Rise & Root Farm, and Stephen Ritz, the founder of the Green Bronx Machine received Food Tank’s Bright Spots award.
Danielle Nierenberg, president and co-founder of Food Tank, a non-profit organization designed to focus on building a global community for safe, healthy, nourished eaters. She said, “Karen Washington and Stephen Ritz, both food leaders working in the Bronx, were recognized because of their extraordinary commitment to making sure that folks living in their community have access to affordable, safe and healthy food.”
Nierenberg added, “Karen and Stephen are creating awareness among adults and children about healthy eating that is good for their bodies and the planet. We were so excited to honor their work.”
Washington, who has lived in New York City her entire life, has spent decades promoting urban farming and gardening. While serving as a physical therapist until she retired a couple of years ago to start Rise & Root Farm (a cooperatively run farm in Orange County), her work in food started with an urban garden in her own backyard in the Bronx in the 80's.
“When I started to taste the food, I was hooked,” says Washington, and noted that many of her physical therapy patients were being adversely affected by a lack of good, fresh and unprocessed food available in the neighborhood. “We had the three food groups – fast, junk and processed.”
Around the same time, there was a vacated lot across the street from where she lived. Washington and others decided to look at the abandoned land in a positive light and in 1988 started the Garden of Happiness, a haven and community gathering place in addition to a place where healthful food was grown.
She has built a community around food and advocated for a fair and just healthy food system ever since. Her work starting urban farms, and serving as the president of the NYC Community Garden Coalition and a member of the boards of organizations like Just Food and WhyHunger, has been a catalyst for amplifying the conversation surrounding an equitable food system, social justice and food sovereignty – making certain all voices are heard and everyone is represented around the table.
“You may encounter nay-sayers,” says Washington “however, it’s important to avoid the negativity – dream big, think big, and key into your greatness and change the world – just do it!”
As a long-term educator in the South Bronx, Stephen Ritz noticed he had gained weight from the food he was eating, the food that was available in the community.
“We are in the poorest county in the state, and there was definitely a correlation between the food the kids were eating, their health and the rise in obesity,” he says, “and I knew it was important to advocate on behalf of the students – giving voice to those without a voice.”
A number of years back, almost by accident, flowers grew in his classroom. He had been given daffodil bulbs and he hid them behind the radiators so that they wouldn’t be used as projectiles. The steam provided enough moisture for the flowers to bloom. The students found the hidden flowers, and Ritz and he and his students became inspired to grow food.
Stephen Ritz says he’s not a farmer but calls himself a CEO or Chief Eternal Optimist of the Green Bronx Machine. “We all started to learn about food production and were able to bring it from the outdoors, inside – and we’re growing using 90% less water.” The students learn important lessons about soil composition, plant science, math, nutrition – and have been involved in marketing what they grow, too.
Ritz says they’ve realized increased attendance, see better academic outcomes, and the kids are healthier and eating better food. They’ve included cooking programs for parents and for students – and even are partnering with local employers that are paying a living wage in the food service industry.
Fast forward and Ritz has taken his “Si, se puede” theme on the road and has helped countless schools and students around the world start similar programs. The kick-off of the Green Bronx Machine’s National Health, Wellness and Learning Center at CS 55 takes place May 10th with the first career tech elementary school so students can learn how to grow from a young age.
“It will be the first cohort of kids from the South Bronx to attend the Bronx High School of Science,” says Ritz. “We’re going to raise healthy and successful kids in the public schools – not as an add-on, but as a built-in. We can make new logos, pathos and ethos – make epic happen!”
In addition to the sold-out, two-day summit at American University in Washington, DC this year, Food Tank is hosting three additional summits throughout 2016: Sacramento, California (September 22), São Paulo, Brazil (September 29) and Chicago, Illinois (November 16-17); a New York City Summit is on the roster for 2017.