FM Innovator: Field of Dreams

Dining Director Tony Geraci is betting the farm on changing how Baltimore City Schools Operates Its Nutrition Program.

LET A THOUSAND FLOWERS BLOOM. Baltimore Dining Director Tony Geraci (above) uses a historic nearby farm as a learning tool to expose city kids to what real food is and where it comes from.

Kids digging in the soil and getting their hands dirty on a warm early fall day. That used to be a common sight in America, and may still be in some parts of the country. But certainly not in inner-city Baltimore, where kids are much more likely to be hanging around street corners or holed up inside playing video games. In this urban landscape, soil is what sits under the debris littering vacant lots.

Yet, that's not what has been happening at a 33-acre rural expanse just outside the city. Instead of staring at a TV screen, youngsters from the city school system are busily — and happily — digging, weeding and planting crops they will harvest, sell, cook or eat.

Overseeing it all is Anthony Geraci, director of food and nutrition services for the Baltimore City Public Schools. Geraci, a successful former commercial chef and restaurateur (see the Guest Chef profile in the June 2009 FM), is determined to foment a revolution. Part of that revolution involves reconnecting urbanized kids with the soil, educating them about matters that past generations knew as a matter of course: what real food is and where it comes from. That's what the above-mentioned activities were all about. More on them in a moment.

On a more practical level, however, the revolution involves changing how child nutrition programs in big city schools operate. To that end, Geraci is overseeing the complete overhaul of Baltimore's school meal program, everything from procurement and production to menus and service. The goal: an efficient system that can menu tasty, healthful dishes made with fresh ingredients on a mass scale every day.

A Hub and Spoke System

The core of the overhaul is a new fresh meal production system that is the diametric opposite of the previous one, which relied almost exclusively on preprocessed commodity product. Geraci intends to convert that to one that will use fresh ingredients — as many as possible sourced from within the state — prepared in ways that are both healthy and appealing. Quartered chickens baked with real herbs and spices instead of nuggets, roasted potatoes instead of french fries, pizza topped with fresh vegetables instead of rubbery cheese.

Because Baltimore's school kitchens have almost no production equipment, and the system hasn't got funds to buy any, Geraci has improvised, devising a kind of hub-and-spoke production operation that maximizes scant resources. The hub is a central kitchen that acts as the primary shipping, receiving and production facility.

Around this hub are 20 “spokes,” satellite kitchens located in schools around the city, with some operating as specialty production kitchens for specific menu categories (bakery, pizza shop, sandwich shop, fresh produce processing, etc.). The food is bulk-produced, chilled, transported to the individual school sites and rethermed there.

Geraci is looking at vacuum packaging to make things simple as possible and eliminate the need for expensive equipment at the school sites. “You only need to boil water to heat the food back up,” he says. “Then, you can scoop and serve.

“I want to be able to maximize our kitchens' capabilities,” he explains. “We have no money to work with, so, being from New Orleans, I've adopted the Blanche Dubois approach to business: I rely on the kindness of strangers.”

The Kindness of Strangers

That “kindness” has resulted in more than $3 million in grants and gifts that have gone to purchase trucks, equipment and training for the planned production operation.

VITAL STATS

Baltimore City Shools
Enrollement: 85,000
Free/Reduces Pct.: 75%
Schools: 201
Nutrition Program Budget: $35 Million

The new infrastructure is also expected to save the department money. With its own temperature-controlled storage and trucks, it won't have to pay outsiders to do these tasks. There are even plans to rent out excess production capacity to outside producers to help cover costs.

But that's just one Geraci innovation in the year and a half he has been at his job. Other accomplishments so far include…

  • Breakfast With the Birds, a healthy breakfast program promoted in partnership with the city's popular big league baseball and football teams (see sidebar [3]);

  • “Meatless Mondays,” which menus vegetarian fare one day a week as a healthy eating initiative, an educational opportunity and a cost saver;

  • rewriting RFPs to emphasize local products, especially Maryland-grown fresh produce;

  • securing deals with local growers to plant contract crops specifically for the school system's kitchens;

  • bringing the student “customers” into the process by soliciting home recipes, taste testing potential dishes and ingredients and generally involving them in menu planning;

  • and last but certainly not least, Great Kids Farm, the actual working farm described above that serves as educational tool, test lab, community garden incubator, revenue generator and, frankly, media magnet.

A Bully Pulpit

Geraci had already tested some of his ideas when he served as head of foodservices for the 2,800-student Contoocook County (NH) Schools, a fairly rural district northwest of Concord. But lots of small, rural and affluent suburban districts all over America have started farm-to-school/fresh food menu programs, so few outsiders noticed.

Baltimore is another matter. Besides its size and demographics (over 90% minority), it has no connection with nearby farmers. It is also on the front lines of a looming healthcare crisis. A recent report indicated that a fifth of the city's high school students are classified as obese, setting them up for Type 2 Diabetes, hypertension and a host of other preventable ills.

You pull off a child nutrition revolution in an environment like Baltimore and people WILL notice. So when Baltimore Schools CEO Andres Alonso approached Geraci in late 2007 about taking on the nutrition director's job, he was ready to listen.

It didn't hurt that Baltimore is a short drive from Washington DC, either.

“I wanted the bully pulpit,” Geraci admits.

“Local” Roots

Geraci comes to the local food faith straight from the mothership, California's Bay Area, arguably the cradle of the farm-to-fork movement. In fact, the New Orleans transplant was there practically from the movement's beginning, running his Santa Cruz restaurant, Antoine's (“the first real deal Creole restaurant in the San Francisco Bay area,” Geraci notes proudly), back in the early 1980s under the same then-radical principle as Alice Waters' landmark Chez Panisse: serve fresh dishes made with local ingredients.

“I lived about 40 minutes from the restaurant and drove by farms every day on the way in,” Geraci recalls. “I began wondering why I was buying food grown thousands of miles away when I had all this right next door, so I began stopping and talking to farmers and building relationships.”

That led to custom crop deals that supplied Antoine's with fresh locally grown produce, a strategy he is now replicating with Maryland's farmers to benefit the Baltimore school system. “Maryland is actually very rural,” he says. “It is one of the states capable of feeding itself.”

Geraci altered long-established procurement practices to get it done. “I wrote the first RFP in Maryland history calling for only Maryland grown fruits and vegetables to be purchased by the Baltimore City school system,” he says proudly.

GREEN ACRES. Great Kids Farm boasts not only crops—even relative exotics like chard—but some animals like free-range chickens and goats, which are not only very popular sights for the city kids who come there on field trips, but which pull their weight in helping the enterprise. The chickens lay organic eggs that the farm sells to bring in revenue while the goats clear fields for planting in short order, undeterred even by poison ivy.

He has established relationships with both large and small farms in the state, using the power of the system's volume purchasing power to strike contract deals (the smaller growers work through a local distributor that consolidates their product and delivers it to the school's central warehouse). “I have 85,000 kids here, so when I buy peaches or apples, I buy 40,000 pounds at a time. Also, the size of the fruit doesn't matter. I have both big kids and little kids, so I'll take it all. Just crate them and deliver them to my central warehouse. I'll take them from there to my schools, where we'll wash them and serve them to the kids.”

Back to the Garden

Perhaps the most prominent feature of Geraci's new-look program at Baltimore is Great Kids Farm, a 33-acre organic farm just outside the city that is owned by the school district but was slated to be sold off before Geraci discovered it. Originally an orphanage built by former slaves in the latter half of the 19th century, it was gifted to the Baltimore Schools in the 1950s with the proviso that it continue to educate at-risk urban youths using the natural environment. That promise had fallen by the wayside until Geraci rediscovered the property and its legacy.

Today, it's an education resource where urban youngsters come to learn about how crops grow and what real food is. Several times a week, groups of district students take field trips to Great Kids Farm to learn about what is being grown there, participate in some of the chores involved in its operation and see the chickens and goats (always a thrill for city kids).

“Fruit is no longer fruit but a flavor in our culture,” Geraci complains. “I want kids to eat a cherry tomato that they helped grow so they start thinking differently about food.”

Rows of Squash and Okra…

District students also have helped pull the farm together. Run down and unused when Geraci took it over last fall, it was spruced up and made ready for production by hundreds of city students and adult volunteers over the winter and early spring.

Now, rows of squash, okra, herbs, carrots and other vegetables sit tidily in the open air near a greenhouse where shoots of various exotic microgreens germinate. Nearby are fruit trees and a chicken coop where hens roam freely, foraging for grubs, bugs and seeds. The free range fowl lay several dozen eggs a day, which the farm sells along with its fresh organic produce to individuals and restaurants through CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) contracts and through a roadside produce stand. The sales bring in revenue to help support the farm.

There is also a vermicomposting pile where earthworms turn organic scrap into rich compost (the farm strictly maintains organic growing principles, so it uses no artificial fertilizers or pesticides).

Elsewhere, a troop of goats roam. The goats earn their keep by clearing fields for planting. “You set a group of goats into an overgrown field and it's remarkable how fast they will clear it, even the poison ivy and poison oak,” says Geraci, who seems to have a knack for making the animals come when he calls. He already has bee hives producing honey and plans to add fish tanks as well as some dairy cows and start cheese production in the near future.

In addition to its growing activities, Great Kids Farm offers vocational training and extended internships for high school students and young adults.

The vocational training is part of a planned “agri-hospitality” program that will train students to identify business opportunities in the farm to fork chain. The program manages Great Kids Café, located in the school district's central office, which serves dishes made with ingredients grown at Great Kids Farm.

The Café is central to a two-year externship program kicking off this January that will have students working at both Great Kids Farm and Great Kids Café, eventually moving up into quasi-management roles in the program in the second year. Another project, slated to open next year, is the first agro-hospitality high school in the United States, a kind of charter school with 300 students who will learn to operate across the farm-to-fork supply chain, trained in both organic agricultural techniques and in hospitality and culinary skills.

“I don't want to create an army of french fry jockeys,” says Geraci. “There are plenty of places you can learn to do that. I want to create cooks and chefs with real career opportunities.”

A Community Incubator

Great Kids Farm also serves as an incubator for school and community garden projects, another Geraci passion. School groups come and learn how to grow crops and then take transplants back to their schools and start gardens there from them. They then maintain those gardens and even serve some of the products in the school, illustrating every step of the traditional food supply channel for children whose only context is the cans, bottles and shrink wraps at the grocery store. Currently, 40 schools in the district have begun such school gardens and Geraci's goal is to have one in every school.

Great Kids Farm also seeds community “hoop houses,” greenhouse operations designed to fit into urban areas to grow fresh produce for area residents.

“I'm on the mayor's task force to develop and build a food system in urban agriculture in the city of Baltimore,” Geraci explains. “We're reclaiming a total of about 30 acres in the city where we'll build portable greenhouses for food production, rather than waiting for Safeway or Whole Foods to build grocery stores in neighborhoods where they're never going to build. So why not bring food to the food deserts? Why not build entrepreneurial models where young men and women can carve out a little piece of business and have these alternative farmers markets in neighborhoods where yuppies don't go.”

Great Kids Farm also serves as a test field for potential additions to the district menu. “The farm can't supply all of our needs, of course, but we use it to plant different crops that we then have the kids try. So for example, they'll tell us they like this variety of turnip or collards. We can then go to a farmer and say, ‘Put in 80 acres or this or 100 acres of that and we'll buy it.’ Or, farmers come to us and tell us the kinds of things that grow especially well around here, and we try those. In the end, it's good for us, good for the kids and good for the farmers.”

Veg Out

One of Anthony Geraci’s innovations in the Baltimore City Public Schools school meal program is “Meatless Mondays.” The system is the largest in the country to adopt such a program, which Geraci admits is a “social statement” but also “a way to amortize operating costs so that I can buy more the rest of the week.”

The program, which removes meats from the lunch menu each Monday in favor of alternatives like cheese lasagna, rice and beans, cheese sandwiches and so forth, was introduced this fall. Geraci says it is also a way to bring some meatless ethnic dishes to the program to give the students a taste of different cultures’ food traditions. “I don’t want to homogenize the kids, I want to celebrate their different cultures and expose them to as many different kinds of foods and ways to prepare foods as I can.”

He says the recipes, some of which are solicited from students and adapted to volume production and school nutritional standards, also can help the poverty-stricken families of students by providing examples of tasty dishes made with inexpensive, healthy ingredients.

Breakfast Program

One of Anthony Geraci's first initiatives when he took over as head of the child nutrition program for the Baltimore City Public Schools was to change the breakfast program. While he had to wait a year for existing contracts to expire in the lunch program, the breakfast program deal was up for renewal.

“I zeroed in on that,” he says. “I worked with an industry partner to create little breakfast boxes with the lowest sugar content cereal I could find on the market, 100% juice and a whole grain snack.”

For extra kid appeal, about one in 20 of the packages also contains prizes, a “Happy Meal idea” Geraci says he took from McDonald's. Prizes include MP3 players and tickets to local sporting events, thanks to partnerships Geraci struck with the town's popular professional sports teams, the Baltimore Ravens of the NFL and Major League Baseball's Baltimore Orioles.

“I partnered with the Ravens and Orioles because I wanted the kids to have different role models,” he says. “For one thing, there's the connection between nutrition and athletic performance. Also, these great athletes on these teams didn't become great athletes by accident. They worked at it. These are readily accessible heroes I can bring to my kids.”

The result was the Breakfast With the Birds program, which brings several Ravens or Orioles once a month to the school with the highest breakfast participation the previous month to have breakfast with the kids.

“It gave the teams an opportunity to connect with their fans and gave the kids an opportunity to meet their heroes,” says Geraci. “And it gave us all an opportunity to have a conversation about nutrition and starting the day off right with a good breakfast.”

The lesson must have sunk in. Breakfast participation shot up in the first two months of the program last fall from about 7,500 a day to 40,000.