Tony Geraci's cucina grande

A centralized school kitchen needs to be on the menu

May 13, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

First assignment for Baltimore's new food czarina: Get Tony Geraci a big kitchen. Mr. Geraci is the high-energy, red-tape-intolerant director of food and nutrition services for the city schools, which constitute ground zero in the battle over childhood obesity and bad eating habits for Baltimore. On the job since 2008, Mr. Geraci is at the point where he needs a centralized kitchen to take his ambitions to the next level, and getting him one should be a top priority for the Rawlings-Blake administration and Holly Freishtat, the city's new food consultant.

It wouldn't hurt if the governor took an interest in this, either.

In fact, the state superintendent of schools, Nancy Grasmick, and all the county superintendents should be taking a hard look at what Mr. Geraci already has accomplished in a short time — and what he wants to do in the next year or two.

He's the kind of talented, informed and driven leader, a genuine visionary, who might easily be recruited to another city, or a job in Washington, if we don't get him what he needs and take advantage of the stunning opportunity he presents.

Mr. Geraci is at the forefront of school lunch reform, a champion of the farms-to-school movement. He uses the word "crap" to describe a lot of what children are offered to eat — at home, in school and in between. It's at school, where education takes place, that the culture needs to change, Mr. Geraci says.

And he's not just a lot of talk. He already has established Meatless Mondays in the schools. He's purchased millions of dollars in local produce and other food products from Maryland farmers for school lunches. He established an organic farm — Great Kids Farm — on abandoned city property; under his leadership, there are now student-run gardens at more than 30 city schools.

While a lot of change has come already, the next step for Mr. Geraci is full integration of all his ideas: purchases of, and even branding of, locally grown produce and Maryland-raised meats; preparation of healthy school lunches by a culinary staff at a centralized kitchen, and daily delivery of the meals to more than 200 school cafeterias.

Imagine fresh chicken — not frozen nuggets, not heat-and-serve patties processed in a factory in Arkansas — but real chicken raised on a Maryland farm. It arrives fresh at Mr. Geraci's imagined cucina grande.

There, a culinary staff prepares it, roasts it or bakes it and packs it for refrigerated delivery to the schools every day. At the schools, the cafeteria staff finishes the chicken with a glaze or sauce and gets it into the food line, along with vegetables, and fruit for dessert.

Mr. Geraci says he can pull this off with the funds already available for the purchase of the food for school lunches.

The centralized kitchen is the missing piece, Mr. Geraci emphasized when I spoke to him Tuesday. Without that, he says, he can't take this grand experiment to the next level.

The same day, the Baltimore City Food Policy Task Force came out with its recommendations for tackling childhood obesity and bringing better food choices to the so-called food deserts on the east and west sides of the city. Its fourth recommendation was: "Support a central kitchen model for the Baltimore City Public School System."

It should be the top recommendation, and the city and the state should come up with the money Mr. Geraci needs for it. He says the cost could be $8 million to $10 million. He's been offered an old school property for conversion to a kitchen, but he is open to other choices.

Get him the centralized kitchen, he says, then all the other school kitchens serving the city's 80,000-plus students start to fill in those food deserts. Kids eat better food, and, with a side dish of nutritional education, they start to understand the importance of doing so. The message gets home to parents, and perhaps the whole food environment starts to change. Local farmers have new clients — the city schools, and maybe eventually the county schools — and pretty soon you've gone from building a movement to establishing something that can sustain itself over time and actually — actually — improve the quality of life for thousands of families.

But Mr. Geraci needs a big kitchen. We should get him one.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM. His e-mail is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com. http://www.twitter.com/MiddayRodricks

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