By Jeff Coltin
It’s Saturday afternoon in the South Bronx and eggplant is flying everywhere. Kids cheer as Stephen Ritz tears into the vegetable like a Doberman devouring a steak. Eggplant sufficiently destroyed, he opens his mouth to speak and a big purple-yellow chunk comes out. “I couldn’t swallow it all that fast!” he defends to a chorus of third-grade “ewws!”
Those assembled — Ritz, two-dozen elementary school students, parents and five Fordham students—were gathered outside P.S. 55 to film the latest version of the “Bronx Brussel Hustle.”
The Hustle is a viral initiative similar to the ALS ice bucket challenge. People are asked to film themselves eating five vegetables as fast as possible, challenge five others to do the same and donate $5 to help build a health, wellness and biodiversity center at P.S. 55.
That center is the dream of Ritz, an enthusiastic science educator. He has won numerous teaching awards for his work to get Bronx students involved in agriculture, and it is easy to see why.
He is a tornado of energy, engaging the young students with a voice full of excitement and getting each of them to cheer for arugula like other kids their age cheer for One Direction. Ritz even gave a TEDx Talk about his efforts in and out of the classroom.
Ross Garlick, GSB ’15, said Ritz has been on his radar since he saw that TEDx Talk two years ago. Garlick has formed a passion for the Bronx since he moved here from the U.K. to attend Fordham, even starting a campaign earlier this year to publicize good things happening in the borough. When he saw Ritz needed money to build a science center at the school, Garlick sprung into action.
“I decided I couldn’t sit back and not help,” he said. “Rather than just donating my own money, I thought, ‘how can we make this a bigger thing to raise awareness and some funds?’”
So Garlick and K.C. Schmitz, GSB ’15, dreamt up and organized the Bronx Brussel Hustle—named for Brussels sprouts, but open to all vegetables. Garlick filmed the first video just over a week ago and, since then, Garlick said about 20 more have followed.
They have mostly been other Fordham students, but some friends of Ritz from around the Bronx have also participated. Since the campaign began, almost $2,500 of the $10,000 goal has been raised.
[FULL DISCLOSURE: The Ram’s Bronx Correspondent has participated and made his own video.]
A lifelong Bronx resident, Ritz already grows fruits and vegetables in a classroom on the fourth floor of P.S. 55, but with the funds raised he wants to do more — more growing space, plus microscopes and a commercial kitchen.
His goal is especially important in the school’s Claremont Village neighborhood.
“If the vegetables weren’t here at school they would have little to no access to them,” Ritz said. “Thirty-seven percent of the residents in this community are food challenged. 99 percent of the kids at P.S. 55 qualify for free and reduced lunch, but right now we’re growing strawberries four stories up, lettuce, tomatoes, eggplants!”
That is enough to get Stephen Ritz’ students excited, like fourth grader Sabion Allen.
“Have you ever drinked pink lemonade with mint in it?” he asked. “I drinked that before! Made it with him, Mr. Steve!”
Jeff Coltin is the Bronx Correspondent for The Fordham Ram.