Growing Food, Growing Healthy Communities

At one point during Tuesday’s panel on “Growing Food, Growing Healthy Communities,” Steve Ritz told the audience, “No one in this room will go broke giving love.”

Now, you could argue Steve, founder of The Green Bronx Machine, is not a financial advisor. Well, there was a time not long ago when you wouldn’t have called him a farmer, and yet he has grown over 50,000 pounds of vegetables in the Bronx and sends 100 bags of produce home weekly. And a few months ago you mightn’t have named him an author, and yet, The Power of a Plant has already become a #1 Amazon Bestseller, less than two months after its release. Long story short, we might as well trust Steve when he tells us we won’t go broke giving love.  

If anything, Tuesday’s panel at the ethereal Deepak HomeBase was a great test run: the mutual respect in the room was palpable. To Steve’s right sat Robert Graham, MD, MPH, co-Founder of FRESH Med; Tony Hillery, Founder and Executive Director of Harlem Grown; and moderator Lori Silverbush, the filmmaker behind A Place at The Table. It feels safe to say that there has never before been a more loving and supportive panel; Tony, Rob and Steve could hardly stop praising each other to talk about their own work! Of course, this only heightened the already skyrocketing admiration of pretty much everyone in attendance.

Filmmaker Lori Silverbush, Harlem Grown's Tony Hillery, FRESH Med's Dr. Robert Graham and Green Bronx Machine's Stephen Ritz at Deepak HomeBase.

Filmmaker Lori Silverbush, Harlem Grown's Tony Hillery, FRESH Med's Dr. Robert Graham and Green Bronx Machine's Stephen Ritz at Deepak HomeBase.

Throughout the night, a recurring theme emerged from the conversation around growing food and healthy communities: children. Of course, Tony and Steve work with kids every single day. Dr. Rob realizes the importance of children in this conversation in a different capacity; in his patients, he sees what childhood malnutrition becomes in its adult form, and that’s dis-ease.

Unfortunately, as a Harvard-trained physician Dr. Graham knows firsthand that pathogenesis, the origin of disease, and “a pill for an ill,” outshines salutogenesis, the origin of health, in medical school curricula. And as one attendee aptly pointed out during the Q&A: If they’re not even teaching this at Harvard… Then what? 

“Don’t wait on an institution to change [...] Get involved in your own health. Take an active stance in wanting to make yourself better,” Dr. Graham says. “Because ultimately, you deserve it. No one else is going to help you get better -- not a doctor, not a health care system, but yourself. And we just have to be a little bit more mindful about what we’re putting in our body.”

While Rob continues to challenge and change the systems in which reactive care can disproportionately harm, rather than heal, already underserved communities, Tony and Steve cultivate new systems. Because presently, the most negatively affected families in Harlem and the Bronx don’t even have the resources to eat, let alone eat mindfully.

“[Harlem Grown] is surrounded by 54 fast food restaurants in a three-block radius, 29 pharmacies and not one affordable food option… For a population that 98% of our families survive solely on food stamps. They have no extra money. So for us to say food, we’re talking about it very casually here. There, it’s life or death."

Tony Hillery growing children in Harlem. 

Tony Hillery growing children in Harlem. 

"It’s not a matter of choice, it’s eat or be hungry. Yes, you can go to Whole Foods or Fairway and get two bags of groceries for your monthly stipend, or you can go to the bodega and get 10 bags of crap. What are you gonna do?” Tony asks, and the audience is silent.  

Steve echoes Tony’s thoughts, “My community where I serve, you don’t drive through it. You have to endeavor to get there. I am 18 blocks from a subway. Understand what that means for parents who want to work. There is no access in.”

And the neighborhoods Tony and Steve describe are what we’ve come to know as “food deserts.” But of that label, Steve says, “It’s a term that we use that makes people feel better about what the situation is, because we’re going to ‘fix the desert.’

“The notion of a food desert is offensive to me because it’s kind of like a great media term. It’s not a food desert, it’s a food swamp. People aren’t hungry. To Tony’s point there are 54 different kinds of fried chicken. There are more kinds of crap for sale in my neighborhood than anyone should ever imagine. So it’s not a food desert, it’s a food swamp. And everything there is a mess. A manufactured edible synthetic substance that is designed to take the health, wealth and opportunity of this community and transfer it out somewhere else. And in it’s wake leave death, disease and dis-ease.”

Steve Ritz growing children in the Bronx.

Steve Ritz growing children in the Bronx.

And with the mention of disease, we cycle back to Dr. Rob. “The number one killer unfortunately is heart disease,” he says, “And 80% of it is reversible by changing your lifestyle. And I would argue that 80% of the lifestyle is food [...] Why don’t we start feeding [people] healthy options, so therefore they can at least learn some of the principles of how to reverse this thing?”

Dr. Rob’s question was likely directed at a larger audience (the 54 fast food chains squeezed into those three Harlem blocks, or health providers dismissive of preventative medicine, perhaps?), because that’s exactly what he, Tony and Steve are already up to. Where Dr. Rob prescribes Food As Medicine, Tony and Steve educate and mentor kids and their families in growing, cooking and eating healthy food.

Attendees of “Growing Food, Growing Healthy Communities” left with a reservoir of new information and perspective on the shadows of our food system. But if there’s one point that stuck as an actionable takeaway, it might have been Steve’s observation: “It’s simple. Children who have access to one kind, caring adult will succeed in life.”

According to Tony, he kills more plants than he grows in Harlem. But Tony, Rob and Steve are not growing plants, they’re growing people. And if we make ourselves kind, caring adults, even for just one individual, then we’ll be growing healthy people, too.

If you feel compelled to get involved in Harlem with "Mr. Tony" Hillery please visit and/or with Steve Ritz from the The Green Machine in the Bronx at