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As director of food and nutrition for Baltimore’s public schools, Tony Geraci transformed school lunch. Not only did he replace “mystery meat” with nutritious meals, he started a farm on school land to teach kids to grow the food they ate. “Cafeteria Man” Geraci is in studio.
- Tony Geraci Chef; Food Service Director, Baltimore City Schools (2006-2009); Food Service Director, Memphis (2010-present)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, how effective are environmental films? Filmmakers Alexandra Cousteau, Chris Palmer and Kip Pastor join us to help us answer that question. But first, he's not your average lunch lady. In fact, he's the almost exact opposite of it. Built like a football player, Tony Geraci has a passion for food, the likes of which could only come from growing up in, well, New Orleans. A chef for many years and a big business food broker, his passion is turning around school nutrition programs.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIToo many kids today, he says, think fruit is a flavor and not a food. And to borrow his language, it's ridiculous to expect teachers to teach and kids to learn when most kids in class are either hungry or jacked up on sugar. Tony Geraci is a chef and advocate of fresh foods for kids. He was food service director for Baltimore City Schools from 2006 to 2009. He's currently in charge of the Memphis City School Food Program. And he stars in a documentary that came out last year out him called "Cafeteria Man." Tony Geraci, good to meet you. Happy to meet you.
MR. TONY GERACIHey, thank you, Kojo. I'm so excited to be here. I've always been a huge fan of yours when I lived here in Baltimore.
NNAMDIIt's mutually exiting. Those of you who'd like to join the conversation with Tony Geraci, call us at 800-433-8850. Have you seen a school lunch program change from bad to good or vice versa? Tell us about it. 800-433-8850. When Chef Andres Alonso brought you to Baltimore, things weren't going well. In fact, in the city school cafeterias, the lunch program, the school lunch program was, to put it mildly, a mess. Tell us about it.
GERACIYeah. It was kind of dismal. There were a group of these amazing kids that got tired of it and they brought the school lunch actually to a school board meeting. And they, you know, flipped the trays upside down, nothing fell off And they said, you try it. And, of course, nobody in the room was willing to give it a try. And that was kind of the catalyst of change in Baltimore. And that's how this film, the "Cafeteria Man," started. Richard Chisolm and Sheila Kinkade and David Grossbach made this incredible film about the realities of change in a big city environment. So, it was a lot of fun to be part of it.
NNAMDILet me side track and talk about the making of the film for a second.
NNAMDIBecause when they first came at you, you weren't exactly sure what they were going to do. But they kind of won you over.
GERACIWell, look, because of the nature of child nutrition, it's always an easy target for ambush journalism to sort of do bad stuff. Both Richard and Sheila are from Baltimore. And Sheila read an article about us creating this great kids farm. It was an abandoned orphanage that had been founded by a slave. And that was the care to get me to come here, right? So, Dr. Alonso said that he would give me that property to do my farm to school program if I came and did the job.
GERACIAnd Sheila met with Richard. They had a conversation about, you know, this is really amazing, interesting stuff for Baltimore especially, right? And they met with me in my office. And Richard, of course, is like very cynical of the whole thing. And we talked for about 10 or 15 minutes and I recognized, like, these guys are the real deal. They're interested in the story and the style that they told the story was like (word?) , right?
GERACIIt was like in the moment as it happens, unscripted. And quite honestly, it was kind of weird and enlightening all at the same time to be followed around by cameras and watch things unfold, you know. The moments that I would try to edit myself, Richard and Sheila were very good about saying, no, say it how you feel.
NNAMDIThis is who you are.
GERACIYeah. Yeah. Yeah, exactly.
NNAMDIWell, the reason I brought that up is because as one article put it, if Tony Geraci were a character on "The Wire," he would be heroic and he would fail.
NNAMDIPeople expected you to fail.
GERACIYeah, absolutely. And that's the weird thing about Baltimore. Right? So, you know, I was fortunate to grow up in New Orleans. It's a city that names it's highways after chefs, you know? I mean, we have different heroes there, right? But there's a level of cynicism that exists in Baltimore that I've never experienced before in my life, you know? And it was a really weird awakening.
GERACIBut I think that the things that we were able to accomplish there were not only revolutionary, but it really spoke to the possibility of hope. And I think that we, as a nation, have forgotten how amazing we are as a country and how amazing we are as a people. I mean, we're, like, gumbo, right? We are every flavor in the pot, right?
NNAMDIYep, you grew up at a time when you saw human beings walk on the moon for the first time and you felt there was nothing you could not accomplish. So you walked into Baltimore and you said, it's time to throw away the idea of school lunches. You think most urban schools should assume they will provide breakfast, lunch and dinner.
GERACIYeah, absolutely. Look, I think if we're going to make this commitment in child education, in public education, that we should go all the way. It is absolutely ridiculous to think that teachers are going to be able to do this with kids that are not ready to learn. Like, I look at child nutrition as readiness. The food on the tray is the byproduct. Putting healthy kids in front of educators ready to learn that's the product that I'm supposed to produce, you know? And that's the product that I'm...
NNAMDIYour job is to put healthy kids in front of teachers so that the teachers can teach.
NNAMDIWhy do people think that that is a virtually impossible task to accomplish?
GERACII think that because people have forgotten to dream. That people have forgotten to sort of think beyond the moment. And I think that, as an example in Memphis. Look, so, I've been there since October. We're the fastest growing breakfast in the classroom program in the nation, right? In the nation, because we are doing it, because we were given permission to make that happen, right? And I think that sometimes with permission coupled with leadership, amazing things happen quickly.
GERACIAnd it's, you know, and these are all federally funded programs. Like I like to tell people in communities across America that, you know, I mean, people like to bitch about sending all their money away in taxes, this is an opportunity to get some of that money back, right?
GERACIAnd, you know, provide the tools so kids can be successful.
NNAMDIYou worked for several years as a food broker for Tyson's chicken. And you say one of the biggest problems in school nutrition is that the wrong people are in charge. What do you mean by that?
GERACIThe child nutrition industry has been dominated by the manufacturing sector. And the manufacturing community, while some are really amazing and doing innovative stuff, there are a lot that sort of see this as just an opportunity to wick away your money, right? So as an example, so I'm a big advocate of central kitchen preparation and a huge advocate of cooking in schools, right? So the government gives me free chicken, as an example, right?
GERACISo now, I can send my free chicken to a processor that can turn it into nuggets, but they're going to charge me about three bucks a pound to do that.
GERACIAnd then they're going to charge me a dollar a pound to ship it back to me. And then I got to pay somebody else to store it. Now, these free chickens are costing me five or six dollars a pound and what is the point, right? And by the way, it's not really chicken anymore, right? So what we're doing in Memphis is we're cooking raw chicken on the bone, right? Gary Larson did this great cartoon once...
NNAMDII love Gary Larson.
GERACI...about the Johnson's free range boneless chicken farm, of all these chicken blobs around. You know? And, you know, people are so disconnected to food that they don't get that. They don't get that, you know, these are birds.
NNAMDIEvery parent knows it can be difficult to introduce kids to new foods. You came up with the idea of having free no-thank-you portions.
GERACIYeah, yeah. So this is really, like, this is one of the most brilliant things that I've ever done. And it works. And it works really well, right? And, you know, and I love to toot my own horn about this. So we take these little paper Solo cups, they're about a one-ounce Solo cup and we put, like, fresh fruits or vegetables or an entrée or whatever we're trying to hustle, whatever we're trying to sort of get our kids to try. And we line up the serving line with these things and you can take as many as you like, right?
GERACIBut the only deal is, you have to try it. You don't have to like it, all right? So, you try it. If you don't like it, there's no yuck. There's no nasty. There's no, eh, no thank you. You toss it. But when you get to the end of the serving line, they count up all of the little no thank you bites and we take these little stars, these little stickers and we put them next to your name. We form this little chart. And then at the end of the month, we have a constellation party for all the stars.
GERACIAnd it becomes a way for me to connect with my clients. My clients are these kids. And they get to have an open, honest conversation about, oh, what did you like? What did you not like? How would you make it differently? You know, was it the color? Was it the texture? Was it the flavor? You know, how would you change it? And, like, all of a sudden, now kids go, man, this guy really cares. This guy is really interested in what I have to say and they're brutally honest. But it gives me the opportunity, as a chef, to create meals that my kids are interested in trying. And you'd be amazed at some of the cool things that we've come up with that kids inspired.
NNAMDIGetting the kids involved with their food. We're talking with Tony Geraci. He's a chef and advocate of fresh foods for kids, served as food service director for Baltimore City Schools from 2006 to 2009. He's currently in charge of the Memphis City School Food Program. We'd like to hear from you. What do you hear from your children about the school lunch program at their school? Do you think serving kids three meals a day in school is the right move for your local school system. Call us, 800-433-8850. Here is Liz in Baltimore, Md. Liz, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LIZHi. I just wanted to say that we miss you here in Baltimore ever since (unintelligible). And, you know, it's true that there has always been less hope here in Baltimore than we wanted. And with Dr. Alonso, you know, we finally have a leader who has stuck with our kids and we were really disappointed that you left kind of before the job really felt like it was done. So, we thank you for all the things that you brought, but we really wish you could have stuck around and did it through the end.
NNAMDIWell, the individual who now runs the programs says the program is going well. He's a friend of yours, isn't he?
GERACIYeah. Yeah. So, Antonio Rodriguez Womack, A-Rod, has stepped into my role there. He actually came down to Memphis and spent, you know, a great deal of time with me. And we've been working together and mentoring to do some things. Look, I have to be honest, one of the reasons why I left Baltimore is because there were too many meetings about trying to get stuff done and less action. And a lot of it was politically motivated.
GERACII have to say Dr. Alonso is, I'm a huge fan of his. And he has been a champion of change. And I continue to work and to help, but I was starting to feel like a chef without a kitchen. And I don't know...
NNAMDII got to tell you, Liz, they have a centralized kitchen in Memphis, TN where he can actually prepare meals.
GERACIYeah, it's a 217,000 square foot, central kitchen that sets on 14 acres. And, look, we cook from scratch, local food everyday for 110,000 kids. Like, Mardi Gras day, which was last Tuesday, we served jambalaya to 110,000 kids and it was all local, all fresh, all from scratch. And it was a bon ton rule.
NNAMDII was wondering why Memphis is my second favorite city to New Orleans, now I know why.
GERACIBlues, barbeque and B.B. King, does it get any better than that?
NNAMDILiz, thank you very much for your call. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Tony Geraci. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. What do you hear from your children about the school lunch program at their school? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Tony Geraci. He's a chef and advocate of Fresh Food for Kids. He was food service director for Baltimore City Schools from 2006 to 2009. He's currently in charge of the Memphis City School Food Program. He stars in the documentary that came out last year called "Cafeteria Man." If you have questions or comments for Tony Geraci, call us at 800-433-8850. In the fall of 2009, you realized one of your biggest object to the dreams, if you will, you opened a working farm for the Baltimore City kids. Why, what does that accomplish?
GERACIWhen you connect a kid with real food, when you give a kid a seed and let that kid plant that seed and watch it grow into something that they can harvest, that they can prepare, that they can share with their peers, that forever changes the way they look at food. It's not consumption anymore. It's a far greater lesson. And food is like this wonderful, universal connector. And food, I think, is a way to have a conversation about how similar we are as people and less about our differences.
NNAMDITalk a little bit about some of the cool foods that the kids inspired in Baltimore as a result of their own input?
GERACIYeah, so we did this thing called "Meatless Monday's, " right. So imagine Baltimore as like the leader of the nation, sort of, starting this vegetarian revolution. So we started serving all of our plant based meals on Monday's. We did, like, you know, the real deal nachos. So it's like this three bean vegetarian chili over nacho chips. My kids, it's nachos to them. To me, I know it was better for them, more fiber, healthier. We did these whole grain lasagna roll ups, you know. So a lot of things that were different, that we were able to, like, introduce in a way that, like, you have to give kids reference points. The food still has to be recognizable.
NNAMDIFood revolution in school. Here is Sara in Shepherdstown, W. Va. Sara, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SARAThank you for taking my call. Pardon me, I'm a holistic nutritionist and I am very curious about how to get this type of revolution started, especially somewhere where it's not necessarily going to be that well received by a lot of the administrators. I think we have a lot of parents in this area who are very interested in having healthier school lunches. But every time I try to go to the school board or to people who are involved in me bringing nutrition into the school, I get a lot of blockades. And I was wondering if you could give me any tips on how to get something like this started and how to fund it?
GERACISure. So there's a really clear economic argument to doing the right thing for your children, right. So I'm also a, you know, a pretty successful businessman. And how I approach this with a lot of communities is I lay out a business plan that shows them how they can not only save money but their communities can retain money. So buying local fresh food means those dollars stay in your community, they don't leave your community. And that creates jobs, that creates opportunity. You get fresher food, better food for your kids. But also there's another thing that, it's an investment in you, it's an investment in your future.
GERACILook, as cheesy as it sounds, you know, these kids, this is the future of America for Gods sakes. So we heap all of this debt upon them, right. You know, we're bailing out banks, we're bailing out all kinds of industry. Why don't we bail out our children, you know, instead of giving them the bill, right? So we have this expectation that we're not even going to feed them, that we're not even willing to do that for them. But these kids, these are the same kids that are going to make a decision about how you live, how you choose to die, who you choose to marry, what your world is going to be about. And if you're not willing to step up today, what is your expectation?
NNAMDII got to tell you about the economic arguments, Sara. At one point, Tony said the federal school lunch program offers Washington state apples at $56 a case. He said I could buy Maryland apples for $6 a case and feed 50,000 more kids a year with the same amount of money. What do you suppose I'm going to do? Thank you very much for your call, Sara.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Mary Jo in Bowie who says "I have a friend who works for the school system and he says that the reasons schools serve pizza and chicken nuggets is because they don't get reimbursed for food unless the kids actually take and eat it. If there's leftover food, it gets counted against their budget." Is that true and is there anything we can do about that, I guess?
GERACISo it's partial truth, all right. And I think that that's part of the problem of this thing is, like, there's a lot of partial truths, all right. So here's the deal. You're right in that, if you don't serve the meal, you don't get reimbursed. But that doesn't mean that kids want to eat pizza and chicken nuggets every day, all right. So the truth is, if you surround kids with a lot of really good choices, guess what happens? They make better choices, all right. So if you eliminate all of the nuggets and all of the pizza around them and surround them with better food, they make better food choices.
GERACIYou know, so you have to sort of take that next step. Look, I’m not the food police, all right. I think that people should have whatever they want to eat, you know. I have an unholy love of barbeque. This is one of the reasons why I live in Memphis, right. But I know that I can't eat barbeque everyday of the week, all right.
GERACISo I want to be able to create an opportunity to have a conversation with kids around what to eat and give them food references, right. You can't think that a kid is going to love carrots if they don't even know where it comes from, right. You've got to, sort of, begin at the beginning. Kojo said at the top of the hour that we've raised a generation successfully that kids think fruit is a flavor. Look, that's a reality, you all. We need to change that.
NNAMDIOn to Danny in Fairfax, Va. Danny, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANNYHi, Kojo, thank you very much for having this topic on your show. I am a mom of two boys who love to eat everything. And I just wanted to say to a lot of parents out there, especially, that I think children -- we assume children will only eat chicken nuggets and only eat pizza. But if you don't give them other choices and give them other foods, they're never going to know whether they like it...
DANNY...or not. So we do the no-thank-you fight at home, too. I cook, I readily try to do as much organic and local foods we can at home. And we do the "no thank you" bite. If you don't like it, that's okay, but you have to try a bite of it. And it works so well. My oldest son's favorite food is sushi, but we would never have known he liked that if we hadn't taken him out and let him try a million different things. And I just think that's so important. Parents, realize that your kids only eat chicken nuggets because that's all you're giving them. It's not the case if you let them try different foods.
NNAMDIWhich is exactly what Tony knows and tries to spread.
GERACIWell, that's the thing, also, you know, parents will come to me and say, you know, my kids will only eat that. That's all they like. And it's, like, well, who does the shopping, Mom? Do you do the shopping or does your kid do the shopping, right? So, you know, there's a level of personal responsibility that cannot be separated here, you know. And that we, as adults, need to step up and I think that we, as adults, need to have a deeper conversation around this.
NNAMDIYou know, if you remember when you were a kid and you avoided or refused to eat something and then one day you tried it and it turned out to be absolutely -- it's like a discovery that you feel that you've made. Sharon in Washington. Sharon, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SHARONHi, Kojo, thanks for taking my call. I wanted to ask about more public campaigns, kind of like Jamie Oliver's "Food Revolution" that a lot of us saw on TV. A lot of his examples to teach some parents were pretty dramatic as far as how much sugar is in the food. But then you'd still see this resistance when you hear about the debate of keeping chocolate milk in schools and that, you know, people say, well, the kids will drink it. It's still milk. But there's still a lot of sugar. I wanted to know, what are some of the other things that the community can do to get more involved?
GERACIYeah, yeah, yeah, be a parent, be active, go to your school. Look, what happens often is there's, like, this group of angry moms that will show up and the food service providers then go into a defensive mode, right, and they shut down. And then it becomes this sort of same standoff that happens in the city everyday in politics, right. People are so, like, you know, obsessed with their position that they leave no room for compromise, right.
GERACISo be willing to have a reasonable conversation, but also be willing to provide solutions, right. So, you know, it's really easy to be angry and pissed off, but unless you're walking in the room with, you know, what about this and we're willing to do that and we're willing to help. Like, I've never in my entire life met a cook that wanted to serve bad food, ever, ever, ever, ever.
NNAMDISharon, thank you very much for your call. We're just about out of time. But I do have to share with you this tweet we got from Martha who says, "In the poster for 'Cafeteria Man,' you're putting up your dukes. So I'm wondering, do you think of yourself as a fighter?"
GERACIYeah, absolutely. I think that every day I get up and I realize that, look, there are a lot of hungry children in this country and often we choose to ignore that. And part of this whole good food revolution needs to be about access. There are hundreds of thousands of children that would love to eat good food but they don't have access to it. And I think that we need to get serious around providing that access and recreating the food hubs that were once here. Look, this nation built its entire power base off of agriculture. And I think that that is an honorable trade. And I think that we should revisit that.1
NNAMDITony Geraci is a chef and advocate of Fresh Food for Kids. He was food service director for Baltimore City schools from 2006 to 2009. He's currently in charge of the Memphis City School Food Program. He stars in the documentary that came out last year, it's called "Cafeteria Man." You can find "Cafeteria Man" for educational screening through The Video Project. You can find a link at our website kojoshow.org, if you'd like to see it. Tony Geraci, thank you so much for joining us. Good luck to you.
GERACIThank you, Kojo, I appreciate it. And, look, everyone, each your greens and go out and play, all right.
NNAMDIThere you go. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, environmental films. Do they help to change your mind about subjects or do you only go to see those films whose point of view with which you agree? Joins us for that conversation, I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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