Tucked within the poorest congressional district in America, sandwiched between the largest strip of public housing in the country, you'll find a farm. But not just any farm. This ever-shifting display of fruit and greens is the focal point of P.S. 55, a K-5 school in the South Bronx where 100 percent of kids are on free and reduced lunch.
For students who live in a maze of bodegas and fast food, access to fresh produce—that they grew themselves, no less—is a novelty. "We're a walk away from the largest McDonald's in the Bronx and the most profitable Dominos per square foot in America. For most of these kids, food is something that comes through a bulletproof window," explains Stephen Ritz, the farm's founder, dressed in his signature nameplate bow tie and foam cheese hat (which stands for "The Big Cheese," of course). "What we need to do is bring the fun back to food."
Ritz's booming, singsong voice fills a bright classroom filled with fish tanks, bookshelves of colorful texts, and an array of vertical and LED farming technologies. A fully stocked kitchen sits next to rows of blenders powered by bicycles. This food lover's dream has existed in the elementary school's old library for about three years now, and so far it has produced 60,000 pounds of what Ritz calls 0-miles-to-plate produce. Outside, one of the most productive gardens in New York sits in the school's front yard, tended to by local high school students.
Ritz speaks with gusto as he shows off a colorful map of every county in New York and explains how his students will soon set out to eat a piece of produce native to each one. That's after they feed the entire school lunch from their kitchen the next day, of course. Since he's started the program, attendance has shot up from 40 percent to 93 percent.
"We're growing a lot of food, but more than anything, we're growing healthy attitudes."