When talking about Pittsburgh, the enthusiasm of educator and urban agriculture advocate Stephen Ritz is nothing less than palpable.

“I’m a New York City boy but I love Pittsburgh,” exclaims Ritz, whose previous trips to the city involved working on projects with the Green Building Alliance and Langley Middle School. “What I love most about Pittsburgh is that it is a true city of neighborhoods working to reinvent themselves. It is the home of the working person, and I love that.”

Ritz will bring his exuberance to the stage on June 6 when he serves as one of the presenters for the latest Inspire Speaker Series, a selection of talks hosted by the Green Building Alliance. The event will feature three experts discussing how urban farming and gardening hold the key to empowering underserved communities in Pittsburgh and beyond.

Joining Ritz is Karen Washington, a fellow New Yorker whose life’s work earned her the title “godmother of urban farming.” Washington has had a major impact on the evening’s final speaker, Raqueeb Bey.

“I look at Karen’s work in a mentor-type way,” says Bey, who’s president of the Pittsburgh chapter of Washington’s organization, Black Urban Growers (BUGS).

Washington’s work started in 1988 when she began converting vacant lots throughout the Bronx into community gardens. In the decades since, she’s earned a number of distinctions, including a spot on Ebony magazine’s Power 100 list of influential African-Americans and winning a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award.

“Urban agriculture is nothing new, but the talk around urban farming is new,” says Bey. “Karen is definitely a forerunner of urban agriculture. She’s an inspiration for diverse groups of farmers.”

Raqueeb Bey. Image courtesy of Raqueeb Bey.

Like Washington, Bey promotes urban farming and gardening in underserved areas by focusing on Homewood and Uptown, two neighborhoods where the lack of supermarkets and corner stores has made food insecurity a big issue. Earlier this year, she and the Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers of Pittsburgh Co-op (BUG-FPC), a collective of around two dozen Black urban agriculturalists and farmers, won a $10,000 grant from the UpPrize Social Innovation Challenge to continue their work, which includes converting a 31,000-square-foot Homewood lot into an urban farm.

Bey plans to speak on her experience with her co-op and youth group, Mama Africa’s Green Scouts, as well as on her role as the garden resource center coordinator for Grow Pittsburgh. More importantly, she wants to emphasize why food justice and sovereignty is so crucial to the health of all communities.

“Regardless of where we live, we can learn how important it is to grow your own food, not just for economic reasons, but because you know what you’re growing,” says Bey, adding that harvesting your own fruits and vegetables means avoiding the harmful aspects of large-scale farming, such as the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides.

She also points out how working in the soil offers other health benefits as a way to relieve stress and lower blood pressure.

Stephen Ritz. Image courtesy of Green Building Alliance.

For Ritz, however, the answer isn’t in the dirt, but indoors. Using aeroponics and vertical farming techniques, he and his group Green Bronx Machine grow vegetables inside buildings throughout the South Bronx, one of the nation’s poorest congressional districts.

“The bulk of the food I’m growing is indoors,” says Ritz, adding that the approach uses 90 percent less water than soil-based farming and allows them to grow all year long, regardless of the season. “It’s about using abandoned buildings and the available infrastructure in our cities and converting it into farmland.”

The approach serves as an integral part of the education program at CS 55, the Bronx-based school where Ritz teaches. There, the staff uses an indoor farm to help kids learn about science and other subjects.

Ritz claims that their efforts have generated more than 55,000 pounds of fresh produce and created 2,200 jobs for South Bronx residents. He believes his model can transform Pittsburgh’s underserved communities where food insecurity goes hand-in-hand with high unemployment and low-achieving schools.

“For me, it’s much more than the urban ag movement,” says Ritz. “It’s about harnessing the underused potential in communities. I like to say I grow vegetables, but my vegetables grow people, schools and communities. I want to redefine the way people look at options in high-needs communities.”

The Inspire Speaker Series: Food and Sustainability event will take place on June 6 from 5:30-7 p.m. in the Elsie H. Hillman Auditorium at Hill House’s Kaufmann Center. Doors open at 4:30 p.m. for networking, food, beer and wine. The lecture begins at 5:30 p.m. and is followed by a Q&A session with the speakers. Registration is required. Free childcare is available with advanced registration. Contact Andrew Ellsworth at [email protected] for more details.