Baltimore’s New School Chef

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Geraci’s cooks are up for the challenge of revamping the menu, which he says will actually result in cost savings for the financially strapped school system. He estimates that the high cost of gasoline adds as much as $13 per case to the total cost of food now trucked into cafeterias from out-of-state distributors. “Besides the health benefits, it will cost us less to cook fresh,” Geraci says.

Geraci has a personal stake in the change. “I was born and raised in New Orleans—I began my life in the Desire Street projects, probably one of the most dangerous and impoverished places in America,” he says. “I know what welfare cheese tastes like. But my family was blessed with great cooks. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we grew our stuff and cooked it, and our family meals were important times when we shared our lives together.”

He hopes to recreate that fellowship with “grab and go” breakfast boxes, which made their debut today: Students can grab the boxes in the lunchroom, take them to class, and eat together at their desks. “I want to create a community over breakfast,” he says. “In breaking bread together near their teacher and classmates, it’s not just about the consumption, it’s the interaction that makes it powerful.” Since 78 percent of the city’s students are eligible for free breakfasts and lunches under federal poverty guidelines—with the number projected to climb to 100 percent next year—this is a big deal. The boxes offer milk, fruit juice, whole-grain cereals, and graham crackers (a far cry from the old school breakfast options, which included doughnuts, sugary muffins, and sweet rolls). The new boxes also contain hundreds of different prizes, including iPod downloads and Baltimore Orioles and Ravens tickets, donated by the sports teams and other sponsors like fruit juice companies. One in 20 boxes is a winner, creating what Geraci hopes will be a “Pavlovian” approach to school breakfast. (The kids I spoke with today were very excited about the prospect of winning prizes.)

Geography and the city’s urban challenges—starkly portrayed in the HBO series The Wire, which focused an entire season on the failings of public education in the city—make Geraci’s quest for culinary conversion different from the Edible Schoolyard project that Alice Waters started in Berkeley in 1995, he said. But the results could be the same. He plans to involve students in designing their school menus and planting some of the foods and herbs to be served. And the chef is planning to install a 33-acre farm in a gritty part of east Baltimore—something of a nod to Waters: Today, that farm is being used to grow office plants for school administrators, but in the near future it will become a unique outdoor classroom. By January, he hopes to open a 37,000-foot central kitchen using a mix of public and private funding, merging most of the school-based kitchens and their equipment under one roof.  There, the student-designed menus will take root as local chefs visit to teach cooking and nutrition classes alongside Geraci.

“You can walk the street here and look at the litter to know what they eat,” said Denise Whiting, owner of the Baltimore restaurant Café Hon, who has met with Geraci about school nutrition. “It’s all about introducing them to food as a new subject.”

Geraci said that could be a tough lesson. “What these kids know about food is what corporate America has taught them. I think it’s unrealistic to expect an educator to execute their lesson plan if the kid sitting in front of them is jacked up on Lucky Charms, or worse, no food at all. This is about reeducation.”

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