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Baltimore's Head of School Lunches Is Transforming the City's Program

After visiting the greenhouse, New Song's students planted seeds in the farm's classroom. If Geraci has his way, every one of the city's more than 200 schools will have its own garden.

Geraci says he hopes the farm will teach kids not only about how plants grow but also about career opportunities. Students who work on the farm will learn how to landscape, a potentially lucrative job, and will see how easy it is to grow, say, micro-greens, which the farm began selling this spring to local restaurants such as Woodberry Kitchen.

To that end, Geraci is opening three restaurants called Great Kids Cafe, a kind of entrepreneurial experiment. Students will be paid to manage the restaurants by grants from the city's office of career and technical education.

Then there are the lunches. Geraci's first move when he arrived in Baltimore last August was to prepare school kitchens and staffers so he could cancel contracts for pre-made lunches and concentrate the $35 million budget on fresh and, where possible, local food. His first request for proposals called for only Maryland-grown produce.

Local-food advocates have cheered the move. But Geraci says his decision was driven as much by economics as by any high-minded philosophy. Case in point: The federal school lunch program offers Washington state apples at $56 a case. "I can buy Maryland apples for $6 a case and feed 50,000 more kids a year with the same amount of money," Geraci said. "What do you suppose I'm going to do?"

As important as the food is the connection with staff members and students in the lunchroom. In middle schools, Geraci asks students to help design menus or create music playlists that match the ethnic theme of a menu. In elementary schools, cafeterias are offering "no-thank-you bites." At the end of each line is a tray of sample cups filled with, say, zucchini or beans, foods children might not be familiar with or inclined to like. If they try and don't like them, they just say, "No thank you." If they do like them, they've broadened their palates. For each bite students taste, they get a star next to their name. At the end of the month, cafeterias hold "constellation parties" to honor the winners.

Such common-sense programs are scalable and transferable and, most important, don't require federal action, Geraci said. More funds would be nice, of course, but the key is putting staff members in place who are capable of and committed to change. "We would be appalled to hire a math teacher that doesn't understand addition and subtraction," Geraci said, repeating another of his favorite lines. "So why are we not appalled when we hire people to run multimillion-dollar food systems who don't understand food?

"The system is broken, man," Geraci said. "We can keep putting Band-Aids on the thing. Or we can fix it."

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