School Lunch Revolution Blossoms in Baltimore

Sometimes change happens in the most unexpected places. When I learned that Baltimore City Public Schools was on a mission to change the way its more than 80,000 students thought about food, I have to admit, I was surprised. The cash strapped school system has long faced difficult challenges and the last place I expected to see noticeable reform was with its food services department. To top that off, you could have bowled me over when I heard that the City Schools’ new chef/dietitian, Melissa Mahoney, convinced her boss, Tony Geraci, to let her develop her own Meatless Monday lunch menus. To be honest, I doubt that Mahoney needed to do a lot of convincing. When it comes to dreaming up innovative and cost effective ways to feed kids healthy, tasty, whole foods, Geraci isn’t shy about pushing the envelope. It’s Geraci’s bold and sometimes brash entrepreneur spirit that has captured the attention of food policy experts across the country, including the White House.

Last week Geraci, hired a little over a year ago to reform Baltimore City Public Schools’ food services program, was invited to testify before a congressional sub-committee that is looking for innovative practices to improve child nutrition.  Geraci touted what the Baltimore school system has already achieved:

We now provide fresh fruit with every lunch we serve. All over Baltimore, students are learning what an actual, locally grown peach tastes like instead of some synthesized peach flavoring. And as of this school year all of the peaches, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers—all of our fruits and vegetables—come from Maryland farms.

While many credit Geraci’s tenacious leadership abilities for what has been accomplished in Baltimore, Geraci will be the first to tell you that much of the groundwork was laid by a strong group of volunteers and innovative community organizers dedicated to changing the way people and children think about food in the Baltimore region. In 2006, a study by the Baltimore Efficiency and Economy Foundation highlighted reasons why school lunch reform in City Schools was sorely needed, and even listed Geraci as a potential consultant. Geraci says, however, that if it were not for a small group of students, whom he calls “school lunch revolutionists,” he would not be in Baltimore today. One of those young revolutionists, Alice Sheehan, was invited to share her story at the same congressional hearing with Geraci. Sheehan is currently an 8th grader in the Baltimore City Public Schools system, and she wasn’t shy about telling members of the House Committee on Education and Labor what spurred her and her fellow school lunch revolutionists to stand up and demand that school leaders “get rid of the overcooked, tasteless and just plain disgusting food.” She went on:

[More than 3 years ago] our story started with the endless grumbling about lunches at school. Tired of the complaints and ready for action, our student council and others together took samples of our prepackaged lunch down to the Baltimore City School Board to demonstrate what it would be like to eat this every day. If that is what they feed us, we said, they should have to eat it too. The Board turned up its nose: no thanks! But the deed was done: we had started acting and not just complaining.

With the help of their Social Studies teacher, Peter French, Sheehan and a handful of her fellow classmates, who were studying the U.S. Constitution at the time, came up with a Cafeteria Bill of Rights.

The Cafeteria Bill of Rights include:

  • The right to nutritious and delicious food for breakfast and lunch
  • The right to fresh fruit and fresh vegetables each day
  • The right to choose-more than one main selection each day
  • The right to give feedback and have input on the quality and selections made and have our input be given serious consideration

Following an impressive grassroots campaign and a Baltimore Sun article critical of the food quality and taste disparities between City Schools and nearby better funded schools, the young school lunch reformers scheduled a meeting to talk with the newly hired Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Dr. Andrés Alonso. Sheehan described the meeting:

… we gave him our Cafeteria Bill of Rights, and told him of our expectations for a better and healthier school lunch system. He was sympathetic with our cause, and admitted how much he disliked the pre-packaged food at his own cafeteria. He said he would do something about it. And he did. The NEW director of food and nutrition, Mr. Geraci, has been working hard to improve our lunches ever since.

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Last month White House Assistant Chef and Food Initiative Coordinator Sam Kass along with officials from the U.S. Departments of Education and Agriculture met up with Geraci (in photo, right), an accomplished chef himself, at the City Schools’ new Great Kids Farm. The 33-acre organic teaching farm — complete with a variety of vegetables and fruits, not to mention goats, chickens and bees — is Geraci’s pride and joy. Geraci says the farm serves as a powerful tool to teach children about food by reconnecting them to how it’s grown and raised and teaching them that food doesn’t come from the grocery store. He proudly told his guests that the farm is virtually self-sufficient thanks to the hard work of its farm manager Greg Strella, dozens of volunteers, donations from non-profits, revenue from its community supported agriculture shares and sales to local restaurants.

It may take longer than he hopes, but Geraci is trying to wean the school system from the pre-packaged meals that many of the schools serve and replace them before the end of this school year with cooked meals prepared right on school property. For the majority of the system’s schools, which no longer have kitchens, Geraci is already working on plans to convert an old warehouse into a central kitchen, from which fresh cooked meals can quickly be delivered. Currently the school system is serving kids regional fruits, veggies and dairy after brokering deals with local suppliers and acquiring a fleet of refrigerated trucks and milk coolers.

Mathew Yale, Deputy Chief of Staff for the Secretary of Education, told Geraci he’s most interested in learning about how the school system made so many changes without a significant increase in federal or state funding. Geraci says it takes a lot of hard work, ingenuity, and luck. Much of the equipment he’s received came through grants or donations. The trucks and milk coolers were a $1.3 million gift from the Mid-Atlantic Dairy Association. But Geraci says if the feds gave the school system more freedom to spend federal dollars to purchase produce, his office would be able to buy a great deal more local fruits and veggies. His favorite example of typical waste inherent in the system is comparing the cost of locally grown apples to apples trucked from states as far away as Washington, almost 3,000 miles from Baltimore.  A case of Maryland apples costs the Baltimore City Public Schools about $6, while a case of government-approved apples costs them about $56.  Geraci says, “it’s outrageous! Why would we spend almost ten times as much money for food that we can grow in our own backyard?” He says, “it not only saves the City Schools money, it puts cash back into the local economy.”

Incorporating Meatless Monday into this year’s lunch menu plans, Geraci says, was another innovative cost cutting measure. The move not only saves the district money but it serves as an educational tool as well. Meatless Monday gives the school system an opportunity to expose students to different cultures, Geraci says, through various meat-free recipes and meals from around the world. U.S. meat industry lobbyists quickly grumbled about Baltimore’s lack of meat options on Mondays, inferring that the meals may lack proper nutrition and claiming menu decisions should be left to the experts not administrators. If the lobbyists had bothered to talk to the person who came up with the idea, Melissa Mahoney, they would have learned that she is a dietitian and that she ensured each meal surpassed all USDA required nutrition standards. Jokingly, Geraci testified in front of House Education and Labor committee members that he had “an unholy love of pork,” but he insisted that, “[Meatless Monday] is not about denying people meat. This is about beginning a conversation about alternatives… beginning a conversation about change.”

The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future recognized the Baltimore City Public Schools last month with the 2009 CLF Award for “Visionary Leadership in Local Food Procurement and Food Education” in hopes of encouraging school districts across the nation to initiate their own school lunch reforms. Timing is also important, as lawmakers consider the reauthorization of the federal Child Nutrition Programs. While Geraci didn’t have time to complete his prepared testimony on the Hill last week, his written testimony finished with a request for Congress to implement the six recommendations of the National Farm to School Network:

1. Guarantee funding for competitive, one-time grants that will help schools develop their own farm to cafeteria projects—menus, procurement, and educational and promotional materials that get local produce into schools.

2. Increase the reimbursement rate for all child nutrition programs in line with actual costs.

3. Apply the same high nutritional standards to all foods and beverages sold within schools, even those not covered by the United States Department of Agriculture’s school meals program.

4. Encourage purchasing of local fruits and vegetables through the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program.

5. Incorporate language changes in existing Child Nutrition Reauthorization feeding programs to promote increased local food purchasing.

6. Provide mandatory and consistent funding for the Team Nutrition Network to enable a consistent and coordinated nutrition education approach across child nutrition programs.

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