Building a Healthier NYC: A Q&A with Stephen Ritz

At a time when purpose-driven brands are rising to the top and older companies are rushing to be relevant to millennials, New York’s Green Bronx Machine stands out as a great example of what a truly inspired and inspiring brand can do.

At a time when purpose-driven brands are rising to the top and older companies are rushing to be relevant to millennials, New York’s Green Bronx Machine stands out as a great example of what a truly inspired and inspiring brand can do.

Its authenticity and core values are driven by Stephen Ritz, a teacher who just wanted kids to understand where food comes from. Despite having almost no staff or official funding, the brand has grown into a large operation that’s greening the Bronx, improving the health and lives of hundreds of people, and sprouting engaged workers.

This year, Stephen won the TEDxManhattan Award, is a finalist for the Global Teacher Award, and helped his students achieve their Barnraiser campaign to build a National Health and Wellness Center.

InterbrandHealth’s Marketing Manager Nicole Diamant chatted with Stephen about the Green Bronx Machine to see how he’s kept the brand—and the kids—so grounded.

Stephen, why start the Green Bronx Machine?

I was inspired to start the Green Bronx Machine by the simple belief that we could grow something greater, that we could move those who were “apart from” to becoming “a part of.” My students and community represent such a wealth of talent, diversity, and potential—there was such an obvious potential multiplier effect just waiting to happen. I wanted kids engaged and optimistic about their lives, looking forward with hope, dignity, and endless possibilities. It was about opportunities, jobs, and reclaiming our community.

How did you initially define success?

When we first started, it was simply taking underused, abandoned and unproductive places and turning them into productive, aspirational and inspirational spaces and getting youth from different orientations to come together for a greater personal and common good. Using the resources in a community to make it a better community. Realize we started with landscape and ornamental gardening long before we knew how to farm.

The name is quite powerful, unique and certainly tied to place.

It (indicates) how I treat my students—with a level of expectation, respect, and reverence—which they appreciated and responded to. Green and Bronx are two words that are not always linked together but should be. Visually, the logo highlights the Bronx in a gorgeous manner while respecting the rivers that surround us. Green Bronx Machine also speaks to a larger vision, that we ourselves are the machine (driving change).

When you started, did you think about GBM as a brand?

We never thought of GBM as a brand but rather a movement and an idea. Realize, I am an educator, not a marketer. We wanted kids to rally around something and themselves in the process.

It seems that GBM has evolved into a brand, which is awesome. That the kids are responsible for this gives them (and me) a tremendous sense of pride. This is as organic and as locally grown as possible—one student at a time, one class at a time, one school at a time, one garden at a time, one neighborhood at a time.

Our brand is as locally grown as it gets. The Bronx is about resilience, grit, determination. We also have a story to tell. Ours has a happy ending and (a future) which is even better. Kids recognize the real, they respond to genuine; they also respond to love and respect—this is about love, respect and growing something greater. You can’t invent or manufacture that; it is a creative, evolving, and iterative process.

Did you envision the holistic snowball effect that GBM would have in impacting the wellbeing of these children, emotionally, physically, and even financially?

It’s been wonderful but make no doubt about it, I go forward and go to work daily with eyes on transforming lives—students don’t rise to low expectations. I tell my students that anything in life is possible if you work hard, so in essence, we are reaping the fruits of our labor.

On a daily basis I see health changing with the students I work with—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. They are eating better, being more active, more involved, more collaborative and more cooperative—we register voters! Ten years ago (my students) couldn’t name ten vegetables. Now we grow 37 varieties all year long indoors aligned to academic, school and personal success, using 90% less space and water.

My own health journey has been phenomenal. My weight is down over 100 pounds. Now I’m eating what I grow in school with students. Year-to-date here at PS 55, behavioral incidents and out of class time incidents are down over 50 percent. Kids are flocking to the center to grow and eat healthy food. We are orienting our work to produce healthy outcomes rooted in growing and eating healthy food—what could be more critical given that we are the least healthy county in New York State?

As you move into the future and grow, how does GBM remain authentic to its core values?

Our focus has shifted to early intervention rooted in the belief that it is easier to raise healthy children than to fix broken men—we have planted our stake in the ground at PS 55—and it would have been easier to go elsewhere. That said, if we raise little ones well, there will be less fixing to do down the line. We remain committed and vigilant equity warriors committed to a greater global good.

Tell me about the National Health, Wellness and Biodiversity Center. What are your goals with this project?

This is where we are putting our stake in the ground. We believe healthy children are at the heart of healthy schools, and healthy schools are at the heart of resilient communities. So, we are transforming an under-used library on the fourth floor in a 100+ year-old red schoolhouse in the poorest Congressional District in America, in the least healthy county in NYS, into a preeminent facility—the National Health and Wellness Center at PS 55. Together, we can all prosper. Si se puede!

Follow and friend the Green Bronx Machine and learn more about the National Health & Wellness Center and help them reach their next goal.

Contributors

Senior Marketing Manager, InterbrandHealth