New York’s urban gardening guru eyes Dubai projects

Teacher and innovator Stephen Ritz, known for the Green Bronx Machine, sees potential for implementing his ideas in Dubai

Stephen Ritz, the South Bronx teacher and administrator who famously created the Green Bronx Machine, is in talks to bring some of his innovative ideas around urban gardening to Dubai.

“I believe that some of the work I am doing is fundamental to the work that needs to be done around the world, so I would welcome the opportunity,” he said when asked whether he would implement his ideas in the emirate. “The world is hungry and needs food, and here I am in the desert so the opportunity to grow food here indoors is tremendous. There are a lot of technologies I am working on that are going to be game-changing.”

Ritz plans to return to Dubai in March to examine these possibilities “in-depth”, he said. He was in Dubai this month to attend What Works, an event hosted by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA).

Ritz’s concept, which encourages students to cultivate plants indoor, resulted in his extended student and community group growing more than 30,000 pounds of vegetables in the Bronx, alongside achieving extraordinary academic performance. His Bronx classroom generates enough produce to provide healthy meals to 450 students. The concept also allows students to earn a living selling their produce and has improved school attendance from 40 percent to 93 percent daily.

The What Works event focused on gardening in schools as a tool to improve student learning. Currently, more than 25 per cent – or 45 – of Dubai’s private schools grow for good, according to KHDA.

“The point is for the remaining 140 schools to see this and not only as an urban gardening project, but also the story and passion behind it. We are in a small-scale system, educating over 200 different nationalities,” said Dr. Abdulla Al Karam, Chairman of the Board of Directors and Director General of KHDA. “They all come from areas where they used to farm… With an initiative of this nature, it will be interesting to see how different cultures will perceive it and what kind of crops they will grow… There will be a lot of urban gardening for good causes here. That’s what Dubai does.”

Students who participated in a one-year gardening program showed a significant increase in self-understanding and the ability to work in groups compared to nonparticipating students, according to KHDA. Research also found children who grow their own food are more likely to eat fresh fruits and vegetables or show a preference for these foods. It is also believed to improve scientific achievement among school goers.

“I may not be producing kids who are Nobel Laureates, but I am producing kids who are engaged in school and who pass tests for the first time in their lives. And that leads to more success,” said Ritz, referring to the results achieved in the Bronx school. “When you can give away food to parents who want it and need it, it is game-changing, and that was the big hook for me. When I started growing culturally relevant food and giving it away for free to parents they started showing up.”

Ritz lost more than 120 pounds by eating the food he grew with the kids in school, in a community traditionally known as a “food desert”, a term the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) uses to define places that have limited access to fresh or healthy food. Now, his urban school garden grows food all year long.

His two cents for schools in Dubai wanting to replicate the same idea: “Start small and support the champion teachers that want to be involved”.

“Input equals output so you are definitely going to see kids that really want to take ownership of this,” he said. “It’s definitely about innovations and I believe there are children here who have brilliant minds and ideas.”