Home cooking at school

Our view : Locally grown foods can help lower school lunch prices

August 27, 2008

On the opening day of school in Baltimore this week, Anthony Geraci, the new head of food services for the city schools, watched with delight as a first-grader at Calvin Rodwell Elementary School bit into a fresh peach from a Maryland farm. "There was peach juice dribbling down his chin and this big smile on his face," Mr. Geraci said. "It was the first time he ever tasted a peach that wasn't from a can."

With food prices rising nationally, school districts across the country are charging more for school lunches to keep up with costs. The increases typically are modest - prices in Baltimore went up 25 cents this year, to $2.25 in elementary school and $2.50 in high school. (Baltimore County prices were $2.90 and $3, while Anne Arundel County's were $2 and $2.25.) But the higher prices can still be a hardship for families with several children in school.

Mr. Geraci's strategy for holding prices down is ingenious: Buy more locally grown fruits, vegetables and other foods. Switching to Maryland produce not only cuts transportation costs but also pumps tax dollars into the local economy and puts fresher, more appetizing foods on the table for city schoolchildren. It's the healthier choice all around.

That's important because nutrition is basic to learning. Kids who start the day with a good breakfast do better in class and have fewer behavioral problems. In Baltimore, where 70 percent of the system's 82,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, Mr. Geraci's goal is to ensure that no child goes hungry.

The biggest challenge is getting more kids into the free breakfast program. Almost all city students are eligible, but only about 12,000 eat breakfast at school, either because they arrive late or because they don't like what's on the menu.

A trained chef who hails from New Orleans and its long tradition of fine dining, Mr. Geraci vows to woo more kids with tastier meal packs that also include toys and other incentives to compete with fast-food fare. "I've got to out-McDonald McDonald's," he jokes. After peaches, he'll offer fresh nectarines, apples and pears. It may seem like a small thing, but educators know that just feeding kids good food can go a long way toward helping them succeed in school.

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