Tony Geraci: Rebel with a Cause
“I was never very good at following the rules,” says Tony Geraci, director of food and nutrition services for 85,000-student Baltimore City Schools. Although this rule bending might have caused him some problems as a child, it’s this attitude that has enabled Geraci to make significant changes to the foodservice operation in his first 12 months with the district.
“I was a bad kid,” Geraci says about his childhood growing up in a rough part of New Orleans. “It was a couple of crazy European chefs who took me aside and said, ‘Look, you’re a knucklehead, but you’ve got real talent and we want to nurture that.’ I think that’s the thing that we forget sometimes. Every kid listens to a different voice, and maybe part of our job should be to hear that voice and nurture kids in a way that speaks to them.”
And that’s exactly what Geraci has done since coming to the district last July. He’s started a farm where students learn hands-on about farming and healthy eating; he’s started school gardens and student-run restaurants; and he’s returning to what he calls “real food” and away from prepared, over-processed products.
“I felt a sense of confidence about his ability to reform what are often very bureaucratic norms in school systems,” says Dr. Andes Alonzo, the district’s CEO. “Tony had the energy, commitment and vision to bring about really good things and to do them relatively quickly.”
Alonzo says Geraci’s drive was one of the main reasons he decided to offer the then vacant director’s position to Geraci in 2008. That, however, was not the first time the district had courted Geraci; he was offered the position several years before but turned it down. When Alonzo was hired in 2007, Geraci accepted the position. “Dr. Alonzo is a visionary and the right leader,” Geraci says. “He has allowed me to do the things that needed to get done to get the program going.”
Great Kids Farm: One of those things Geraci wanted to do was to transform an abandoned 33-acre lot that the district owned. The district was going to sell the lot to a used-car salesman, but Geraci persuaded the administration to let him start a farm on it instead. “The first week on the job, I was handed the keys to the farm and told it was mine to do with as I pleased,” Geraci says. “They also said, ‘We don’t have any money for the farm.’”
That didn’t stop Geraci. With no funding or help from the district, nor any farming experience, Geraci has created an organic farm, named Great Kids Farm, which now hosts hundreds of students each month and has led to the planting of more than 30 school gardens. The farm’s produce is also used in the district’s cafeterias.
Geraci says his business savvy enabled him to get the farm running. “I’m a good businessman. I’m good at finding dollars.” With money provided by the district to hire a dietitian, Geraci hired not only the dietitian but also a farm manager, Greg Strella. Together, Geraci and Strella developed a 16-item “wish list” of things they wanted to accomplish. Those items included planting orchards, populating the farm with chickens, bees and goats and getting commercial clients to help support the farm. Each of the 16 items has been accomplished.
Because the district provided no funding for the farm, Geraci turned to the community for help. The response, Geraci says, was overwhelming. “The story has really been about a city. I can’t tell you how many thousands of volunteers have come out to work. People want things to get better and they know the only way things are going to change is if they do it themselves.” In addition to volunteers’ manual help, the community also provided donations—and not just monetary ones. The farm’s goats, among other things, were donated by an area farmer.
But the farm doesn’t run on donations alone. The farm generates revenue by growing microgreens, which are sold to local restaurants. “It is important to create sustainable economic models,” Geraci says. “This way we can show the kids there are job opportunities and how food gets from farm to fork.”