Cafeteria Man Tony Geraci: hype or hope?

by Dana Woldow on September 25, 2012

Hyperbole is the stock in trade of many high profile school food reformers. Jamie Oliver relies on “stunts”, like filling a school bus with sugar, to promote his views, and Chef Ann Cooper uses catchy sound bites, like calling chocolate milk “soda in drag.” So it’s not surprising to find that former Baltimore City Public Schools’ nutrition director Tony Geraci stretches the truth a bit to make a point, although it does mean that those who are serious about school food reform need to take his statements with a grain of USDA-regulated salt.

This was made perfectly clear at a recent screening of the film Cafeteria Man, which presents some of the highlights of Geraci’s brief tenure as head of the Baltimore City Public Schools’ nutrition department. The screening in San Francisco was sponsored by Slow Food, and included a post-film panel discussion with Geraci (now head of student nutrition in Memphis Public Schools), Oakland USD school nutrition director Jennifer LeBarre, SFUSD nutrition director Ed Wilkins, and SFUSD assistant director, Zetta Reicker; the panel was moderated by Dr. Paula Jones, SF Department of Public Health.

The film, a series of random snippets presented without narration, has many scenes of charming students, including adorable first graders visiting the farm Geraci set up on abandoned Baltimore school district property. The big eyed kids gamely taste radish sprouts and other micro greens, to mixed response, but the sense of wonder and revelation for the children comes through. Equally illuminating are the older students who talk about how they hate their school meals, but eat them because they are hungry and have no choice. These are the film’s most powerful moments.

Cafeteria Man is billed as a documentary but it feels more like a promotional piece for Geraci. A true documentary would have followed up on some of the more intriguing snippets, like the scene in which Geraci’s dietitian Mellissa Mahoney apparently uncovers a case of overbilling by a produce supplier. Or the scene where cafeteria workers tell Geraci they receive nothing but pizza to serve day after day; Geraci tells them he is spending $3 million on fresh produce, but it seems they have never received any of it to serve to their students. Unfortunately that is all we learn about these nefarious goings on, as the film never investigates further.

In Baltimore City Public Schools (not to be confused with Baltimore County Public Schools, which does not include the City of Baltimore) 84% of the approximately 84,000 students qualified for free or reduced price school meals in 2011-12.

According to an article in Urbanite Baltimore magazine, when Geraci arrived in Baltimore in 2008, “he promised to transform lunchrooms from dishers-out of pre-packaged glop and fried, unidentifiable animal parts into sanctuaries for fresh, locally grown food cooked in-house. His vision included establishing a central kitchen that would receive fresh meats, cheeses, and produce and turn them into nutritious, tasty meals.”

Yet two years later, when Geraci announced he would be scaling back his duties to part time, the central kitchen remained out of reach. The Cafeteria Man website explains, “Unfortunately, Tony’s vision of creating a central kitchen that would allow the city’s students to benefit from freshly-cooked meals, as opposed to the heating of frozen entrees, has never been realized due to financial constraints and lack of clarity on the best path forward (e.g., one centralized kitchen or potentially a series of kitchens capable of reaching more schools). As in many urban school districts across the country, a majority of Baltimore City schools do not have fully functioning kitchens.”

You wouldn’t know any of this from watching Cafeteria Man, though. The movie never says that Geraci was not able to get the central kitchen he wanted, nor does it explain what changes Geraci was able to bring to the meal program in Baltimore, beyond the sourcing of local fruits and vegetables. We are told that he eliminated the “pre-plated” frozen meals, but get no clue how, absent the central kitchen of his dreams, he is able to cook the meals locally.

It was only after the screening, during audience question time, that we learned there was, in fact, no central kitchen. Geraci told the SF audience that he had raised the necessary $19 million to build that kitchen, but that it had not yet been built because people were still squabbling over the location.

However, the transcript of a Baltimore City school board meeting indicates that the kitchen has not been built because the district still lacks the funding. On July 24, 2012, district superintendent Andrés Alonso told the school board, “There is the reality that we do not have cafeterias in every single school. We don’t have a central kitchen because we haven’t had the money to do a central kitchen.” School board commissioner Robert Heck responded, “We would like to be able to do the things we want to do in terms of central kitchen and, obviously, resources. I hope the legislators will be listening as we move forward to alternative financing plans that will be able to allow us to be able to build these things.”

A lasting legacy of Geraci’s time in Baltimore is the Great Kids Farm, an educational tool Geraci created on a formerly abandoned 33 acre district-owned lot. After convincing the school district to allow him to develop a farm on the land, Geraci turned to volunteers to help make it happen.

The film does not make clear that the farm is for nutrition education only, and is not supplying the produce to feed the tens of thousands of Baltimore students eating school meals daily, leading one member of the audience at the San Francisco screening to ask the SFUSD nutrition directors when San Francisco would be getting its own school district farm to grow its cafeteria produce. Geraci could have spoken up at that point to explain that his farm was not supplying the cafeterias in Baltimore, but he didn’t.

Geraci was more forthcoming with the Baltimore media. “Our vision is not to produce all the food for the public school system but to be an incubator of opportunity,” he told the Baltimore Community Foundation newsletter. “We have created more than 30 school gardens from cuttings from the Great Kids Farm, and we use the farm for menu development, to test which crops kids like best so we can ask local farmers to grow them.”

Meatless Monday, another Geraci innovation featured in the film, was launched in Baltimore schools in 2009, to cut costs and reduce kids’ intake of cholesterol and saturated fats. Soon after, the Atlantic reported that some parents were unhappy with that change. Geraci himself told Urbanite magazine, “You wouldn’t believe the number of calls I get from parents on Mondays who are angry because their kids can’t get a chicken box.”

Although pro-meatless websites continue to promote Baltimore’s Meatless Monday, the school district’s published elementary/middle school menu for September 2012 does not show a single “meatless” day, Monday or otherwise. There is a vegetarian option available on 8 of the 19 school days in September, but it is always offered in addition to, not instead of, a meat-based option. Again, although Geraci did tell the SF audience that not all of his Baltimore innovations continued after his departure, he never mentioned the elimination of Meatless Monday.

Is it all just hype with little substance? Richard Chisolm, the Baltimore filmmaker who directed Cafeteria Man, was quoted in 2010 as saying “The problem is that Tony is excited and comes across as a visionary when he speaks. That gets people thinking that things will be done—and done quickly—even though it’s not ever that simple. City kids have been eating crap for thirty years, and even though Tony has accomplished several of his goals, people will say it’s not enough.”

Geraci mentioned at the San Francisco screening that school nutrition “is the hardest industry I have ever been in.” He describes himself as a businessman first and foremost, and talked about how he is “a Capitalist with a capital C”, but one who uses his profits to make things better. He quoted an old Sicilian saying “The farmer who plants the orchard is often not the farmer who gets to rest under the canopy of the trees”, and characterized himself as the farmer who plants the orchard, which may explain why I detected a faint aroma of fertilizer around some of his statements.

For example, when talking about the success of his breakfast in the classroom program in Memphis, Geraci exuberantly announced that by feeding breakfast to every child at participating schools, he had increased nutrition department revenue by so many millions of dollars that he was able to give $3 million to the school district to help them with their own deficit.

Knowing that it is a violation of federal law to transfer money from the school meal program to fund other school needs, and that even the allowable indirect costs which districts can legally charge to the nutrition department are capped, after the panel I asked Geraci to explain. Turns out that $3 million is not from extra breakfast revenue, but rather from a separate catering business he has set up producing meals for parochial and other schools outside the federal program, which does not use any federal funding or commodity foods.

It’s impressive that catering out of the Memphis central kitchen is that lucrative, but not the same as making so much off school breakfast that you can help bail out the school district, which I suspect is the impression that everyone else in the audience was left with.

Part of Geraci’s narrative is that change in Baltimore started with students bringing their inferior school meals to the Board of Education and insisting that the adults eat them. As he told the SF audience, “I am shameless about showing up somewhere with 30 kids and telling the adults, ‘You can say no to me, but you are going to have to say no to these kids.'”

Students bringing school lunch to a Board of Education meeting might be an effective stunt in a school district that had no idea how students felt about their cafeteria meals, but is about 10 years too late in SFUSD. Here, understanding how students felt about their school lunches drove longtime school board member Jill Wynns to co-author a resolution, approved by the BOE in 2003, intended to start fixing the problem.

While there is room for improvement, substantial progress has been made in SF over the past decade even without the additional funding which real school food reform requires. School board members Jill Wynns, and Rachel Norton, who has also made improving school meals one of her priorities, have been eating the school lunch regularly for many years. All of our school board members are well aware of what kind of food SFUSD is able to afford, given that its labor costs are among the highest in the country. As Oakland’s LeBarre repeated several times at the Cafeteria Man screening, “You can’t have both high labor costs and also good food.”

Encouraging students to bring their cafeteria lunch to a school board meeting here is a waste of time. The school meal contract is already being rebid this semester. Funding is being sought for the feasibility study that would nail down the cost of both building a central kitchen to allow scratch cooking of meals using local ingredients right here in SF, and also the costs of upgrading school facilities to finish and serve those meals. As well, funding is being sought for the cost analysis study to determine the ongoing cost of operating the central kitchen, and for additional labor at school sites to serve this kind of meal. SFUSD is way past the point where students need to point out to the adults in charge that “school food sucks.”

Oakland is even further along, having completed their feasibility study and now moving forward with a school facilities bond, Measure J, on the November ballot, which includes money for “renovating and/or constructing central, on-site, and community kitchens.”

Ultimately, what viewers take away from seeing Cafeteria Man depends in large part on what they brought in. Those new to school food reform will be buoyed by Geraci’s optimistic persona, his enthusiasm, humor and drive. But those already knowledgeable about the issue may feel let down by the lack of specific information about what lasting changes Geraci was able to make and how he implemented those changes. The film feels like a cheerleading effort for the idea of fixing school food, rather than a how to guide to getting it done. Hype or hope? Depends on what you are looking for.

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at Follow her on Twitter @nestwife.

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