Many school leaders believe it is too difficult or too expensive to serve kids fresh, local produce every day in schools. Tony Geraci, known to many as simply “Cafeteria Man,” has set out to prove those naysayers wrong—and has done so with flying colors.
Geraci is the subject of a documentary aptly named to reflect his goals and accomplishments: Cafeteria Man. Directed by Richard Chisholm, this movie tells the story of Geraci’s crusade to overhaul school food systems and create healthier environments for students in Baltimore, Maryland, and now in Memphis, Tennessee.
Baltimore students were tired of what they called “mystery meat” and frozen, plastic-covered, pre-plated lunches and pizza—so very much pizza. In the movie you heard several students complain, “School food is terrible,” and “Mystery meat again?”
Students were so tired of the same old unhealthy foods, that a group of them even took a plate of school food to the school board to show them what they were being served at lunch. “I was hungry and I had nothing to eat, I didn’t bring lunch every day so that is the only food I had,” one student told the Board.
The students wanted change, and Geraci was just the man to give it to them.
In Baltimore, his first order of business was to introduce students to fresh, locally grown fruits. “In one generation, fruit has become a flavor, not a food,” he says in response to fruit-flavored items like juices and energy drinks.
Geraci found that he could either buy canned, sliced peaches for 14 cents a portion, or a peach from a local farm for just 8 cents. The choice was clear: Give children less corn syrup and more fresh produce, all while saving the district money.
Once the district realized the benefits of bringing in locally sourced foods, Geraci was able to expand the program to include other fruits and vegetables as well as cover breakfast and supper programs in addition to lunch.
But Geraci wasn’t done. “The single most powerful tool you can use to teach a kid about food is to plant a seed and watch that child watch that seed grow into a fruit or a vegetable that they harvest,” he explains.
This vision led him to create Great Kids Farm, a 33-acre area where Baltimore students learn by doing. A fully hands-on experience, Baltimore students plant, care for and eventually harvest and eat their own homegrown foods. The students are learning where their food comes from, and perhaps more importantly, how to grow and cook their own food—a very useful skill to have.
Geraci also took a group of students to testify to Congress about school nutrition, and started a summer program through which high school students get to learn from local chefs and restaurant owners how to cook, and how to work in and run their own kitchen. Coming full circle, the student-run restaurants serve Great Kids Farm produce.
When Geraci felt he had done all he could for the students of Baltimore, and when he was sure the programs he initiated would be sustained, it was time for him to move on. Memphis and its 125,000 students are now benefitting from his ideas and expertise.
“We live in a really exciting time right now in America. We have an opportunity for cities and communities to come together with a common theme of this next generation of children,” Geraci explains. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be the Food Service Director leading the charge, it can be anybody in your community: it can be a principal, a teacher, a parent, a child, it can be anybody. But you have to start.”
To watch Cafeteria Man online or to find out when it will be showing on your local PBS station, visit their website.