Tony Geraci: Rebel with a Cause
The goal of the Great Kid Farm is to teach students about farming, healthy eating and life. Before visiting, the students decide what plants they want to grow in their school’s garden. Geraci and Strella then start those plants in one of the farm’s greenhouses. When the students visit the farm, they spend the day learning and eating, and when they return to their schools, they plant their own school garden.
“A lot of kids are so far removed from nature,” Geraci says. “You can talk to a kid about the virtues of eating wholesome food, but until that kid plucks a cherry tomato off a line he planted and pops it into his mouth and that flavor explosion happens, that’s a moment you cannot teach in a book. It’s that moment that forever changes the way that kid looks at food. It’s no longer a consumptive act; it becomes far greater. That’s the place where you can have a reasonable conversation about eating habits and their bodies.”
Geraci’s passion for the farm and his students is in some ways born out of an atonement for his past. “I was a food manufacture broker and I got very wealthy, but I did it on the backs of a lot of kids,” he says. “We have an entire generation of kids for whom fruit is a flavor and not a food. We have to get them back to a place where food is real. This is doable. We put a man on a moon in less than a decade and what I’m talking about is certainly not rocket science. We just need to get off of our asses, stop talking about it and holding our kids hostage to big food manufacturers and just do it.”
Real-world experience: “My philosophy is that everything I do needs to have a connection to a kid,” Geraci says. “If something doesn’t have a direct connection to a kid, it’s not worth doing.”
That philosophy is at play in another of Geraci’s initiatives—student-run restaurants. Junior- and senior-high students from the district’s culinary programs run the three restaurants, which are named Great Kids Café. The students have half-day externships, during which time they work in the restaurants and the district’s cafeterias and central kitchen. “The student will learn business and how to be successful and maybe they will springboard this opportunity into business or culinary school,” Geraci says.
Each of the three restaurants will have a different concept. One, in the district’s central office, is like a corporate B&I account, and another is a cross between a Starbucks and Panera Bread. Produce from the farm is used in the restaurants. The first location opened earlier this month.
Menu changes: Geraci is also making changes to the cafeterias’ offerings. All fruits and vegetables are grown in Maryland. Geraci started Meatless Mondays, with offerings such as red beans and rice, vegetarian lasagna and hummus wraps, and eliminated pizza as a daily menu selection to try to push students into trying different and healthier options. The schools are also making the switch from pre-plated meals to cooking meals in house.
Another of Geraci’s initiatives is called No Thank You Bites. The program is designed to get students to try new items. If the items go over well, Geraci adds them to the menus. Students who choose to participate are given a two-ounce bite of a fruit, vegetable or entrée to try. If they try the item, they are given a star. At the end of the month, the students with stars are invited to a constellation party, during which time Geraci and his cafeteria managers are able to talk in a non-threatening environment to the students about what they like and dislike about the foodservice program.
Another big project Geraci tackled was the district’s low breakfast participation, which was at 8,500 meals a day. Geraci got the district approved for Provision II breakfast and added multiple serving options. He started breakfast in the classroom, “second chance” breakfast and breakfast kiosks to give students every opportunity to participate. He also started a boxed grab-and-go breakfast program that contains a low-sugar cereal, 100% juice drink, a whole-grain snack and a carton of milk. To make the meals more attractive, he partnered with the Baltimore Ravens and Orioles sports teams. The boxes are now covered with the teams’ colors and logos. In addition, one out of every 20 boxes has a winning code printed on the bottom. The prizes range from free music downloads to tickets to the teams’ games. In the first 60 days after starting the boxed breakfast option, participation increased more than 400% to reach 35,000 breakfasts served a day.
Geraci says one reason the breakfast program has been a hit is because older students help by assembling boxes and picking up trash. They receive community service hours for their work. “We found the younger kids couldn’t wait to be older so they could run the program,” Geraci says. “We get caught up in the minutia of teaching a test and we forget these are kids and we should be teaching them leadership and community skills.”
Geraci’s first 12 months in the district have not only garnered the attention and respect of his students but also the community. Not bad for a self-professed rule breaker.