By Stephen Ritz
On the heels of National Nutrition Month, I’m so looking forward to Every Kid Healthy Week, celebrating school health and wellness achievements – the heart and the essence of Green Bronx Machine! We understand that healthy schools are at the heart of healthy communities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taught the world that physical health and mental health are inextricably inter-related. It will take a long time for us and our children to recover. Here in New York City, with both a new mayor and a new school chancellor, there is a top-down focus on healthy habits, good nutrition, emotional health, physical activity, mindfulness, and planet-friendly diets. Both understand that physical, mental, and emotional health are inextricably connected to school performance. They are committed to this in action and with policy. I’m excited by the bold leadership they have already demonstrated, and I look forward to seeing the continued impact.
It was inspiring to interview New York City Mayor Eric Adams at the National Health, Wellness and Learning Center at CS55 in the Bronx. It was great to hear his thoughts about the amazing progress Green Bronx Machine has made in a county that is first in everything bad and last in everything good. And I was proud to give a shoutout to the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation as one of our principal supporters. Together, we understand that EVERY KID means EVERY KID, EVERYWHERE!
I remain so impressed with Mayor Adams’ personal journey with his own health, particularly around plant-forward and climate-friendly diets – talk about leading by example! He has walked the walk and put his money where his mouth is: investing in programs that support nutrition education and wellness for children and committing to sourcing healthy and locally.
His support of programs like Green Bronx Machine led us to host him for a student-grown lunch and a follow-up visit with the director of his food team, Rachel Atcheson, along with New York State Education Chancellor Dr. Betty Rosa and New York State Agriculture Commissioner Richard Ball. They both believe that Green Bronx Machine is the perfect program to unite the city and the state around healthy living, learning, and economic development.
Who knew that from our humble corner of the globe, we have the potential to change the world?! Which brings me back to our friends and amazing supporters at the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation who have supported Green Bronx Machine with Trust-Based Philanthropy for the past three years. Through their generosity, we’ve been able to mitigate the pandemic’s effect on our communities, support vulnerable families, create programming, and acknowledge some of our most marginalized populations. No foundation that I can think of speaks more precisely and elegantly to EVERY Kid Healthy Week than the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation – they are inclusive of everyone, everywhere, across every sector of need, service, and opportunity. Their commitment is to all the children of NYC including and particularly those least able to speak and advocate for themselves.
The Journal of the American Medical Association estimates that between 2.2 million to 2.9 million children and adolescents in the U.S. are nonverbal. There are tens of thousands of nonverbal children enrolled in New York City public schools across all age levels. And that was before COVID-19. As students continue to return to school, I expect those numbers will rise. Not to mention, the trauma they see daily is unprecedented. For these children, and with all children, positive nonverbal communication is critical. Smiling, eye contact, and proper body language signal to a child the kind of care and understanding that is vital to development. Through the kindness of the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation, I was so proud to feature Mr. Met in our television series, Let’s Learn with Mister Ritz, as a non-verbal character who was able to teach “EVERY KID” without ever saying a single word.
Mr. Met, the New York Mets’ official mascot, excels at this. In this episode, he not only teaches us to dance, exercise and stay fit, but more importantly, to communicate without words, to be kind without words, to be understanding and respectful without talking. As teachers, as parents, and as adults, we need to take special care with all our children to understand what they’re saying, whether they’re actually speaking or not. As we head towards the endemic and look boldly towards getting to back to better and re-engaging with children, we especially need to learn and listen with our hearts and our eyes. It’s time to move from barely surviving to absolutely thriving. Empathy and compassion must be our new North Stars. Our episode with Mr. Met makes it as easy as 1, 2, 3.
Every child deserves to be happy and healthy. Every child deserves the best education possible and inclusive and equitable opportunities. This is my battle cry. And it is on all of us to make sure every week is EVERY KID HEALTHY WEEK! Green Bronx Machine will continue to do our part and I applaud and commend the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation for empowering us – and so many other organizations across our great city – to make epic happen! BRAVO!
Stephen Ritz is an acclaimed educator, founder of Green Bronx Machine, and author of Power of a Plant.
Green Bronx Machine was born via collaboration between life-long educator Stephen Ritz and his students who observed that as waistlines expanded, engagement and opportunities in school decreased, school performance suffered, and hope and ambition became minimized. Originally an after-school, alternative program for high school students, Green Bronx Machine has evolved into K-12+ model fully integrated into core curriculum. Our students grow, eat and love their vegetables en route to spectacular academic performance.