In a community struggling with endemic poverty, unequal access to healthy food and environmental blight, Discovery High School’s Living Environment class has become the unlikely vanguard of an urban gardening movement. Started by Steve Ritz, the program’s teacher and enthusiastic Bronx activist, Discovery is creating positive change, one pound of vegetables at a time.

Discovery’s garden project was jump-started by Steve Ritz, the teacher of the Living Environment class and unofficial leader of a new kind of urban gardening movement. A lack of outdoor growing space has not deterred Ritz’s students from producing 20,000 pounds of organic and sustainably farmed vegetables in an area the size of a large living room. The vertical steel planters and indoor lighting techniques provided by Green Living Technologies have enabled Ritz’s students to produce enormous yields in a tiny growing space, while developing vocational skills that make them highly sought-after employees.

Excitement about the class spreads largely by word of mouth. Enthusiastic students recruit their friends, who are often attracted by the promise of doing work with tangible benefits for their community. Not all of Ritz’s students become green roof workers, but all are inspired to achieve– Ritz’s students go on to college and vocational programs at astronomical, unprecedented rates. His classes are full of success stories like that of Natali Soriano, a senior who is going to college and majoring in Criminal Justice. He says that the garden project “inspired me to follow my dreams. I got here and we started doing things little by little…and now I’m moving forward, I’m going to college.”

The garden program combines sustainable farming technologies with a mission of community revitalization. According to Ritz, “We grow 20,000 pounds of vegetables in the Bronx, but we’re not just growing vegetables, we’re growing citizens…that’s what the birth of this green Bronx machine is all about.” 93% of Discovery High School’s students receive free and reduced lunch and EBT benefits – the vegetables that students bring home provide economic empowerment for a community that often lacks sufficient access to cheap and healthy food. The students also grow seedlings for eventual transfer to nearby community and senior center gardens, helping other Bronx residents to secure their access to healthy and sustainable food.

Discovery aims to build sustainable methods of agriculture while encouraging “sustainable cycles of economics,” using green entrepreneurship as a means of empowering students and providing cheap organic food to an appreciative community. To this end, the Living Environment class also assists students in becoming certified with Green Living Technologies’ employment training program, one of the leading green certification programs in the industry. Ritz’s students include some of the youngest certified green wall installers in the world. They are highly sought after by employers – many have turned their gardening experience into post-graduation jobs.

The knowledge and techniques introduced in the class have enabled the program to extend its influence far beyond the Bronx. The program began by constructing the first Department of Education green wall in NYC, and, since then, has built successful urban garden installations in Rockefeller Center and the Bronx County Courthouse, while providing food for the Department of Education’s Garden-to-Café initiative and selling their crops at a well-attended and highly profitable farmers’ market.

In a city whose desire for sustainable farming and community development is insatiable, Ritz sees Discovery’s program as moving into ever-widening “spheres of success.” He sees this ravenous interest in urban farming, green technology and entrepreneurship as a symbol of vitality that is both very American and very inspirational. As he puts it, “We are Ameri-cans. We’ve gone from The Audacity of Hope to hope for some audacity. This is a true si se puede moment.”

Jasmine Jeffers

For more information on Discovery High School and NYC’s green revitalization:

http://www.growtolearn.org/view/discoveryhighgarden

http://agreenroof.com/

http://urbangardenmagazine.com/

http://www.greenthumbnyc.org/

http://www.ssbx.org/