Seeds Of Change

Organic farm will give city school students a chance to get their hands dirty while learning about nutrition

November 24, 2008|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,

Driving on U.S. 40, shoving along with the traffic past strip malls, gas stations and drive-through restaurants, there's no apparent reason to give Nuwood Road, landmarked by an auto supply store, a second glance.

But if one did turn in and hang a quick right, he or she would see what could soon become the linchpin for bringing wholesome eating to Baltimore City schools.

Tony Geraci, the system's new food service director, plans to turn the 33 surprisingly rural acres in Baltimore County into an organic farm where schoolchildren will learn about healthy food and sustainable living, by digging in the dirt, planting seeds and watching fruits and vegetables come to life.

It's to be called Fresh Start Farm, because, as Geraci says, Baltimore, with its disheartening poverty and obesity rates, needs a fresh start.

"If you walk through Baltimore and see the trash, that's [the remnants of] what our kids eat," the former chef says, speaking of the chip bags, soda bottles and fast food containers that litter city streets. "This is what these kids know. But they'll see this farm and see that they can have their own little plant on their stoop at home. And that even in some burned-out neighborhood in the city, they can have a garden that will support life."

Geraci walked the weeded-over property recently, stepping through tangles of scrub grass, past the hulks of fallen trees, pointing to the greenhouses and a long-abandoned stone barn that, though dilapidated, might still have something left to give. Years ago, the city purchased the former reformatory/orphanage with the idea that it could be turned into a nature center, but for at least a decade, Geraci says, the land was largely forgotten.

While he and his newly hired farm manager, Greg Strella, survey the land, they enthusiastically describe their plans.

Under the shaded canopy of the forest, near the brook that runs through the property on its way to the nearby Patapsco River, they'll grow shiitake and oyster mushrooms.

In the sloping fields, they'll plant corn, squash, micro-greens, herbs, tomatoes, peppers - dozens of vegetables.

Cherry, apple, pear and peach trees will eventually fill out an orchard while blueberry bushes will sweeten the perimeter.

Everything will be organic.

"Imagine this chock-full of food growing that kids will have planted," Geraci says. "I see them sleeping on the grass, looking up at the stars, sitting around a campfire - and this is in the heart of Babylon."

That's just the plants. In the barn, Geraci wants to bring in goats, sheep, chickens and cows. He'd like to try beekeeping. And in the name of sustainability, he's counting on building a compost station and a worm farm.

It sounds ambitious. Geraci, however, is anything but daunted. He sees the entire plan - from mushrooms to worms - coming together in phases over the next year. Moreover, he believes the farm will be paying for itself in two years.

"It sounds like a lot of jabber," he concedes. "But it's very real. This is very doable."

The farm is part of Geraci's overall strategy to get city schoolchildren eating healthier meals and making them more aware of the environment and how their food choices affect it.

Like food directors at schools all over the country, he's cutting back on frozen entrees and making deals with area farms to get things like fresh Maryland peaches onto children's lunch trays. He jokes that before he got to town, the most important tools in the school kitchen arsenal were box-cutters. Earlier this year he instituted a "breakfast box" program to encourage kids who might otherwise skip the meal to instead grab the containers with milk, 100-percent juice, low-sugar cereal and a high-protein snack.

Baltimore recruited him this year from New Hampshire, where he led a public school food services department and founded a program called First Course, a culinary arts school for young people who are low-income, disabled or recovering from addiction.

Here, Geraci's job is fraught with challenges. Making good food is the easy part - it's getting children to make the right choices outside of school that's tough.

A 2007 survey found one-fifth of high school students in Baltimore City were obese, according to the city's Health Department. Students in the city were more likely to be overweight than those elsewhere in Maryland. And, rates of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes in adults are also higher in the city - particularly among blacks.

Nationally, obesity among children and adolescents has increased by about 66 percent during the past decade.

Geraci, who grew up in public housing in New Orleans and, in his adult life, has struggled with diabetes and weight issues, thinks he understands what the young people of Baltimore are up against. As he puts it, "I know what welfare cheese tastes like."

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