Tony Geraci is something of a celebrity in the world of public school food services. This former top chef for the Baltimore public school system has garnered national attention for reinventing the school cafeteria with fresh, nutritious, local foods. While in Baltimore, he founded Great Kids Farm, a 33-acre farm at which Baltimore City Public School kids grow organic produce to sell to restaurants and at farmer's markets.
Now, he's turned his sights on Memphis. Geraci was hired to oversee Memphis City Schools' food services program this past fall, and he's already added a supper program. — Hannah Sayle
Flyer: Why move all the way to Memphis?
Geraci: This 217,000-square-foot central kitchen and processing center. This is like a Barbie Dream Kitchen for a chef. When I first got here to help [MCS] launch their breakfast in the classroom program, I saw this amazing facility and thought, How come we're not using it to its full capacity?
How is your job in Memphis different from what you did in Baltimore?
This particular area of the country has year-round growing capabilities. We have a deep rich history of agriculture, and we have the capability of turning that bounty into meals that can be served to all of our citizens. My job is not necessarily just putting food on the tray but putting healthy kids in front of educators.
What changes are you instituting?
We're going green. There are over 60 dishwashers in schools running again that weren't running two weeks ago. That means dumpsters are no longer overflowing with Styrofoam trays, which also lowers our costs in terms of trash pickup and lowers our carbon footprint.
We're also looking at doing contract cropping with local farmers, so we give them a seasonal menu and they'll start growing some of that stuff.
Money is not a topic you shy away from in your philosophy about school nutrition.
For every dollar that we get to reinvest in Memphis, that flips 10 times before it leaves town. Imagine if we could spend $10 million over the course of the next year buying locally grown food and goods and services. That has a hundred-million-dollar a year economic impact in town. And getting our children ready to learn is crucial to attracting industry, opportunity, and jobs.
Is that what you would say to someone who objects to using taxpayer dollars on Your school supper program?
I absolutely agree that there should be an active, ongoing conversation about welfare reform. But I think that feeding these kids is an unrelated subject. If we want a strong Memphis, we have to invest in it today. And the most appropriate investment would be in our people.
You're pushing nutrient-dense meals on kids who would probably prefer chips and candy.
It's not that kids are unwilling to eat good stuff. It's that they don't have access. This is about exposing kids to good food, and the kids are eating the food. We're monitoring the trash and watching what's going into the trash to make sure it's working, and it's working. We're looking at empty plates.