Radical in the Lunch Line
Baltimore's Geraci Grows a Hands-On Program

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Never mind that a thin stream of water is leaking through a crack in the greenhouse roof. Or that most of the class of 5-year-olds who were brought in to see the plants didn't much like the samples of radish and mustard greens they tasted. It will take a lot more than that to dim Tony Geraci's enthusiasm for his latest project, the 33-acre Great Kids Farm, tucked behind strip malls and fast-food joints in Catonsville, Md.

Just some asbestos removal here and some bathroom renovations there, and "this will be an alternative school that teaches the idea and premises of sustainability," Geraci explained as he bounced through the aqua-walled main building. The new food service director for Baltimore City Public Schools has grand plans: The farm, which began welcoming students this past winter, will serve as an incubator for school gardens throughout the city. This summer, he plans to launch three student-run restaurants that will serve the farm's produce.

"We want to give the kids the experience of the food from farm to fork: where food happens, how it happens, why it happens and how they can make better choices to change the way things work," Geraci said.

That's no small task anywhere, let alone in Baltimore, where the school district has long been in the red and almost 74 percent of the 83,000 students receive free or reduced-price meals. Students call the food "nasty." Three years ago, they marched into a school board meeting to complain that meatloaf stuck stubbornly to their plastic meal trays and milk was sometimes frozen.

If Geraci were a character on "The Wire," he would be heroic, and he would fail. The HBO drama depicted the Baltimore schools as chronically overwhelmed, with staff members who lacked the authority to effect change. Geraci has the will, plus boundless energy and an unorthodox style. He's not only running Baltimore's school food service, he's campaigning for it. Like a politician on the stump, Geraci tells stories that have a message: It's the kids, stupid. Students deserve to eat delicious, healthful meals. And those meals help students learn.

"You cannot have the expectation that a teacher can teach if the kid is hungry or jacked up on sugar," said Geraci, 52. "My job is to put healthy kids in front of teachers so they can teach."

Geraci is the antithesis of the little old lunch lady. He grew up in New Orleans and was, by his own admission, a lousy student. But he loved home economics, a class where he could cook (and meet girls). He grew up, became a chef and moved to New Hampshire. He ran restaurants and for several years was a food broker for Tyson Foods, a job history that gives him the opportunity to point out again and again that "no one knows chicken nuggets better than me."

In 1998, Geraci broke his back in an industrial accident. He spent a year in the hospital and while he was there, decided there was more to life than slinging microwave-ready meals. And so in 2003, he took the job as food service director for Contoocook County, N.H., a district with 11 schools and 5,000 students. Within three years, the district had launched a farm-to-school program in conjunction with the University of New Hampshire, and the 11 schools were serving food cooked from scratch. At the same time, Geraci managed to bring the previously money-losing lunch program into the black.

That success brought him to the attention of the Baltimore school system. "Tony doesn't have an ounce of cynicism about what's possible," said Andrés Alonso, chief executive of the city's schools. "He's new enough that he hasn't been beaten down by compromise or failure."

Nationwide, there have been years of discussion about how to improve school lunches; this summer, the debate heats up again as Congress takes up the reauthorization of child nutrition programs that President Obama has made a centerpiece of his domestic agenda. Over the years, Congress has mandated federal nutrition standards, funded fresh fruit and vegetable programs and debated, but never acted on, banning various "junk foods" from schools. Sustainable-food advocates have called for schools to serve more local food, a tactic they say would not only improve flavor but also help support small farms and renew rural communities.

Geraci's plan is to involve students in food at every step of the process. Take Great Kids Farm. The city had long owned the land, which it used as a nature center, but was set to sell the property. Geraci convinced school officials that a farm was just the place for children to learn about where food comes from. The property had three greenhouses. Since taking it over, the staff has planted a three-acre field of vegetables and a small orchard and brought in pigs, chickens and goats.

Teachers are enthusiastic about the farm. "This was the perfect field trip," said New Song Academy kindergarten teacher Mary Yao, who has planted a small flower garden at her charter school. "We wanted them to go and see a real farm. Otherwise it was just looking at pictures in a book and me telling them what one was like."

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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