Growing Healthy Citizens

With “passion, purpose, and hope,” we all can “make epic happen.”

That’s the message educator Stephen Ritz told his audience at the Portland State bookstore last week while promoting his new book, The Power of a Plant: A Teacher’s Odyssey to Grow Healthy Minds and Schools. Co-written with project-based learning advocate Suzie Boss , the book tells the story of how Ritz and a robust gardening program turned around schools and an entire community in one of the most downtrodden areas in the United States: the South Bronx.

The Power of a Plant Book Cover Stephen RitzThe South Bronx seems an unlikely place for a thriving school gardening movement. Gang violence is rampant, incarceration rates are high, and homelessness is close to the norm. What’s more, many refer to communities like the Bronx as “food deserts” where it is all too easy to get your hands on a soda and bag of Doritos, but almost impossible to find fresh produce.

But in the midst of this challenging environment, Ritz’s schools have become sanctuaries filled with booming indoor and outdoor gardens. The gardens provide more than healthy food in the cafeterias, they are also woven into every aspect of student learning from literacy to math to science. As the gardens flourish, so do the students themselves, and the schools are seeing significant gains in test scores and graduation rates. Ritz likes to say that although his gardens produce over 36 types of crops entirely from seed, his favorite crop is “organically-grown healthy students and citizens.”

Ritz’s “eternal optimism” has pushed him to think of possibilities beyond the Bronx. Ritz is a popular keynote speaker on the education circuit and has given two TED talks ( here and here). Travelling across the US and the globe, his model has inspired more than 5,000 school and community gardens. This past year, with help from Clarity Innovations, he developed a comprehensive classroom gardening curriculum , making it easy for any school to create their own sustainable program.

In Portland, it feels like summer may finally be here. As our gardens start to grow, pick up The Power of a Plant for an inspirational read about all the positive things that can happen inside and outside the classroom, when we remove limits to our imagination.