For-Purpose Partnerships: Lessons from Gotham Greens and Green Bronx Machine

When I attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the National Health and Wellness Learning Center at CS 55 in the Bronx, my primary goal was to see Stephen Ritz, his classroom, and his students in action. While I was there, I met Julie and Danielle from Gotham Greens! I recognized the brand from my grocery shopping excursions and was curious about their participation in the event. It turns out that Gotham Greens has partnered extensively with Green Bronx Machine. From my interview with Stephen Ritz and subsequent conversation with Gotham Greens, I was able to learn the about the value of selective partnerships, how partnerships can impact more than just funding or advertising, and gain valuable insight into how nonprofit organizations can make the most of their relationships to increase their social impact.

StephenRitzAtGothamGreens.PhotoCreditGothamGreens
“High tech urban agriculture is the wave of the future. In a world that is continually exploding with population demand and increasingly more hungry with limited means and resources, urban agriculture is an answer!” Stephen Ritz at a Gotham Greens Gowanus, Brooklyn facility. Photo Credit: Gotham Greens

Stephen, I read that your programming originally started as an after-school program for high schoolers, yet the ribbon cutting event mainly involved elementary and middle school aged kids. How did your work adapt?

It started as overage under credit education in high school and second opportunity settings – young adults who had lost hope and no one knew what to do with them, so we found a niche for them. Many had never succeeded in school because school had never succeeded for them! I love working with disconnected youth because that can be their greatest relationship in the world, but if you are going to have the greatest impact, you’ve got to start as young and early as possible with children in elementary school! Not unpacking bad habits but building good habits on top of good habits on top of good habits and growing something greater.

I’m very committed to workforce development. You are going to see a lot of adult education programs here in the Fall and we are looking at a program to employment pipeline with living-wage employers throughout the city. Parents can come in, second opportunity parents, the unemployed and under-employed…they can come in for a training program aligned with healthy living, healthy earning, and a living-wage job, all while their children get to see it! Where else in America is a child able to train side by side with a parent for a living-wage job, remarkably with the very vegetables the child grew in school, and en route to academic success? It’s a new model but it’s exciting and we are innovating, iterating, and growing something greater.  

Have you had any continuing relationships with past program participants or know of what they are up to now?

They all give back! That’s what’s amazing. It’s not about giving back, it’s about paying it forward. Recently, I was in Canada with a young man who is a manager at Whole Foods. He grew up with me through the foster care system and he’s helping me open up schools in Canada. I travel with some of my special needs kids who do amazing work in turn-key jobs and programs, and we have regular volunteers. My extended community family never goes away! That’s a beautiful thing. I have children’s children – I started teaching in the 80s so I’m on my second, third generation of kids and families. I have children in colleges, graduates who are teaching now, competent adults who are running substance abuse clinics. All children who have gone on to things and places they’d never imagined and it’s the power of planting a seed, of nurturing something that’s living. Children realize that they are a part of a larger, moving, ever-evolving ecosystem and they can move from the bottom as consumers to top-grade producers.

Some of the representatives from Gotham Greens were telling me about how they donate some of their seedlings to your program. How did this partnership come about?

I am proud and inspired by our partnership with Gotham Greens. They are an American success story. They are pioneers. Viraj is wonderful. I met Viraj many years ago when one of my overage accreditation programs won the indoor gardening championship – inspired by his facility and vision. Viraj was kind enough to show us. This is when I didn’t know what hydroponics were or what a real, successful, profitable urban farm looked like . He was kind enough to open his doors and show it to us – to inspire city children to see something totally new, in our own backyard. It gave me vision and allowed me to go back and inspired our kids to do this. I am a huge Viraj fan and I cannot say enough about Nicole and Julie – Nicole is the Green Goddess of Brooklyn according to my children. I love you and I thank you and my kids thank you! My kids love their greens! I have parents who show up here every two weeks because it’s the only leafy greens that they get. That is a starting point for many of our other parent activities. Healthy, fresh food should be a right for everybody. I am forever grateful to Viraj and the entire Gothan Greens family – watching him scale and grow his business – as a student – is critical to work I seek to do as an educator and administrator.

Ours is a relationship that we have nurtured through the years – patience and timing are critical – we worked patiently to create a perfect opportunity that works well for both parties. 

The fact that we live in a community with limited means and limited access to healthy, fresh food, and we are growing it in school and parents are learning about it…they are so in love with this technology! We have so many immigrants who came to this country because they were hungry and to pursue the American dream, and when they realize they can grow food indoors and there are living wage jobs aligned with urban agriculture that don’t necessarily require two years of college or a high school diploma, but rather that you show up clean, sober, and ready to work, which so many of these people are, that is awesome!

Tomorrow I’m giving away 240 bags of fresh, locally grown greens thanks to Gotham Greens – we go to them to get it expanding our access to the city in the process. The kids are going to be cooking it! Our entire community knows the brand! We are a local school and the only one that I know of that opens up on all four sides to public housing, and then those four sides to more public housing all around. To think people are coming to us – we’ve hosted governments from Mexico, Dubai, Canada…that’s impact.

We now have students that want to go to land-grant colleges and want to be involved in new sciences, technology, and engineering, and what I like to call STEAM: STEM + A for arts, aspiration and advocacy. Our gardens are beautiful and artistic, and we have an arts-integrated program. Aspiration because kids are learning about jobs and opportunities they would not have otherwise had. Bill Yosses, the former White House Pastry Chef comes here once a month and the kids call him Chef Bill! We’ve taken kids from the projects to the White House, and put them inside the White House! We presented at State of STEM and presented our technology in January. If you look at the per capita income here…it’s not much. That’s the power and the promise of a public education, as well it should be!

What’s next? Is the National Health, Wellness, and Learning Center your last big project for the Green Bronx Machine?

We are just getting started! This fall we will be debuting in other schools in several countries and several American cities – stay tuned! We are looking to grow our sponsors, our board and our donor base as well as actively engage volunteers on a long term basis – growing something greater. Regarding engagement, it has to make sense and come from place of aligned values, not photo opportunities.

We are looking for socially responsible individuals and companies that want to get on board and work together for a greater good.

We are writing a book with Rodale Publishing – with profits going to seed the work, and working on a TV show. Most importantly, on a daily basis we are generating great data and great results! We seek to partner with those interested in growing something great, interested in transforming lives and outcomes in this and future generations. It’s not only about market share, but growing the next generation of educated and empowered consumers, employees and innovators. I believe that communities like ours are the greatest pools of untapped resources and creativity! Children will never be well read if they are not well fed. We need to look at creating access and opportunities that benefit all! I have incredible children in front of me daily who are waiting for the opportunity. Join us, walk with us, we are the ones we are waiting for and this is our collective moment! Si se puede!

Julie, do you have experience in the nonprofit sector before your work with Gotham Greens? 

Yes, I actually started my career interning at several museums and an advocacy group. From there I joined the for-profit sector, but I knew that I wanted to work for a company that was having a positive impact on their community and disrupting the food system. I was always very into food and was a fan of Gotham Greens, so when the opportunity arose to join them I took it! It felt like the perfect opportunity to work for a company whose mission and values I really believed in.

How has Gotham Greens involvement with Stephen Ritz and Green Bronx Machine evolved?

Our longstanding relationship with Green Bronx Machine started back in the summer of 2012 when our CEO Viraj Puri hosted Stephen and his group of children to spend an afternoon at our Greenpoint, Brooklyn greenhouse facility. Viraj went on to be a mentor for his group of students from the Wildcat Academy for a project competition in FreshDirect’s inaugural Green Angel Fund Challenge, which the students won. Since then we’ve been admirers and supporters of their work.

We’ve been proud to work with them to bring seedlings and produce to their school. Their work is making a huge impact in their school, community and the city as a whole.

How does partnering with a 501(c)3 organization, such as Green Bronx Machine, align with your company’s goals?

We partner with a number of nonprofits throughout NYC and Chicago to help support our company’s goals of improving our food system and contributing to urban sustainability through local community programming. Organizations like NYC Parks Department help us distribute our seedlings to community and school gardening projects. Partnering with organizations like City Harvest and The Greater Chicago Food Depository enables us to provide our fresh produce to our city’s most food insecure communities.

The Green Bronx Machine has been an exceptional partnership because their mission and values are very much in line with our own. Their program uses plant-based education to impact their community of students and families. They educate the next generation of urban farmers, scientists and innovators while also bringing fresh produce to their community, which has little access to locally grown greens. We’re inspired by innovation and technology, and driven by a sense of duty to address ecological issues facing our agricultural system. Developing a partnership with Green Bronx Machine has been a natural extension of those goals. Besides sharing our vision for the future of cities, they are also amazing people who have worked tirelessly to see their goals become a reality. We were proud to join them in celebrating the grand opening of their National Health, Wellness and Learning Center this year.

Nicole, what advice do you have for nonprofit organizations who are looking to make the most of their relationships with partners in the for-profit sector?

Find companies and organizations with common goals. Stick to your values and seek out companies who share them.

Queens facility. Photo credit: Gotham Greens
“Our partnership is really remarkable because they’ve come a long way and I have students and parents who want to be urban farmers!” – Stephen Ritz. Gotham Greens facility in Queens. Photo Credit: Gotham Greens
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I have always used Idealist as my first stop for job, volunteer, and internship opportunities. Because of this, I have been lucky enough to be a part of a wide-variety of nonprofits and social impact organizations - from artistically mentoring young children with chronic illness, to serving LGBT women with cancer, to overseeing an industrial arts summer program for youth! Always in pursuit of new challenges, I've earned a BA in Dance, Sociology, & Ethics and a MS in Bioethics. In addition to my work with Idealist Careers, I am a nanny, freelance professional dancer, and pursuing a PhD in Sociology with a medical emphasis.
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