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School garden rock star Stephen Ritz sows seeds of change in Vegas

The Bill Nye of school garden programs, Stephen Ritz, is in town for the Nevada Green Schools STEM Summit taking place this Saturday at West Career & Technical Academy. Launched to fame by his 2008 speech at Columbia University, “From Crack to Cucumbers,” Ritz is a South Bronx educator who tackled childhood obesity and taught science by introducing an edible garden into his classroom. Now known as the Green Bronx Machine, the project has garnered national attention as a model for positive change. After touring Walter S. Bracken Elementary School’s gardens, Ritz spent some time talking with Desert Companion’s Heidi Kyser about the movement.

I gather you’re making the rounds in Las Vegas. What are your first impressions of the school district’s gardening program?

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I am in love with the Walter Bracken STEAM Academy. You can see the transformation that has occurred there and the joy that it has brought to the kids and the community. It’s an involved and engaged faculty, and that makes a difference. … I’m a huge fan of Las Vegas, and I see a tremendous cooperation here between the schools and casinos and restaurants, who love growing food. The public-private partnerships are brilliant.

What does the STEM Summit taking place this weekend mean to your average Las Vegan?

STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) — and I actually prefer STEAM (with an “A” for the arts) — represents the greatest opportunity for transforming the economy and the environment, and nothing’s more critical to the health and wealth of Las Vegas than those two things. Healthy children are the heart of healthy schools, and healthy schools are the heart of healthy communities. It’s also economic. Efficient practices in schools help save tax dollars, and this summit is really about fostering best practices to move everybody forward.

What will you tell the people who attend?

I’m going to share my experience, my hope for what healthy engaged school communities look like and how I’ve managed to transform performance among some of the least likely students in one of the least likely places in the country.

Is the jury still out on whether investment in school gardens provides a good return, or is that seen as a given now?

It all depends on how you’re doing school gardening. But if you talk to the principal at Bracken or to me, the answer is unequivocally yes. It’s a good investment if you garden smarter, aligning a specific academic outcome to that process. It’s about using your garden as a tool to teach Common Core. It’s a point of entry to all things. … There are always naysayers out there, but the reality is, food is a non-negotiable. Nowhere else can you vote three times a day but at the table. Schools with gardens are moving kids from being consumers to producers, and it has a multiplier effect.

You’ve traveled and spoken about this all over the country. What’s the most innovative thing happening right now?

Certainly the notion of indoor agriculture — moving away from your traditional raised beds to integration of 21st-century technology. Whether it’s vertical alignment or LED lighting or whatever, that’s what inspires me, because it’s hyperlocal using technology. That’s real STEM learning to me.

What are the movement’s challenges?

One place for all this stuff to live — the best practices and knowledge that everyone has accumulated. That’s the big challenge right now, and we’re all trying to figure that out. But we do see people coming together like this weekend in Vegas, so that’s really inspiring to all of us.

What’s your favorite story about how gardening changed a life?

I myself have lost more than 100 pounds simply by eating the food I grow with the kids in school. … But my favorite organic product is healthy high-performing children who are losing weight, feeling great and going to college, learning how to farm with 90 percent less water in 90 percent less space, zero miles to plate. That’s a benefit to everybody, including Mother Earth.