Cafeteria Man Dishes His Plans

If you watched the documentary film “Cafeteria Man” discussed in this blog, you saw that the film about now Memphis schools food director Tony Geraci was studded with more trite liberal phrases than raisins in a bran muffin.

Phrases like “sustainability” recurred through the movie. Even though such practices have been used by responsible farmers for millennia, suddenly it’s new and special. Then there is “eating local,” “do it for the children,” “farm grown,” “organic,” etc. The film made Geraci look like a lunchroom Messiah.

Which he is not.

Today’s serving of propaganda about him makes the CA’s front page, complete with photo of a woman “farm manager and educator for Shelby County Schools, inspects marigolds as bees pollinate in a garden behind Grahamwood Elementary School.”

The author, Jane Roberts, goes on to talk about Geraci’s “vegan quinoa oat cookie sweetened with local sorghum” that epitomizes Geraci’s wonderful ideas about nutrition in the classroom. He believes in providing breakfast in the classroom; providing supper, too; using more locally grown produce; having schools grow some of it; and implementing his idea of nutrition for the now combined city and county school systems.

Roberts doesn’t ask him about some of the questions people had about his reign in the Baltimore School system. She could start with why did he leave and how will the school farms work?

BeyondChron of San Francisco, which followed Geraci’s doings in Baltimore had this to say:

A lasting legacy of Geraci’s time in Baltimore is the Great Kids Farm, an educational tool Geraci created on a formerly abandoned 33 acre district-owned lot. After convincing the school district to allow him to develop a farm on the land, Geraci turned to volunteers to help make it happen.

The film (Cafeteria Man) does not make clear that the farm is for nutrition education only, and is not supplying the produce to feed the tens of thousands of Baltimore students eating school meals daily, leading one member of the audience at the San Francisco screening to ask the SFUSD nutrition directors when San Francisco would be getting its own school district farm to grow its cafeteria produce. Geraci could have spoken up at that point to explain that his farm was not supplying the cafeterias in Baltimore, but he didn’t.

So what will happen in Memphis? BeyondChron found:

For example, when talking about the success of his breakfast in the classroom program in Memphis, Geraci exuberantly announced that by feeding breakfast to every child at participating schools, he had increased nutrition department revenue by so many millions of dollars that he was able to give $3 million to the school district to help them with their own deficit.

Knowing that it is a violation of federal law to transfer money from the school meal program to fund other school needs, and that even the allowable indirect costs which districts can legally charge to the nutrition department are capped, after the panel I asked Geraci to explain. Turns out that $3 million is not from extra breakfast revenue, but rather from a separate catering business he has set up producing meals for parochial and other schools outside the federal program, which does not use any federal funding or commodity foods.

Geraci seems dismissive of the money it takes to fund three meals a day. “When more than 70 percent of students come from poor backgrounds, the level of federal reimbursement – particularly at breakfast – covers the 30 percent who would be paying, making expansion a no brainer,” the article says.

Well someone’s paying for it. Just because it is from a federal program doesn’t mean that the money is falling from the sky for Memphis; taxpayers here are still contributing to it.

In Baltimore, Geraci started “Meatless Mondays.” Here, he is promoting “Memphis Mondays,” which he says will be “reflecting the region’s culinary culture, including beans and rice.” Sounds fine, but according to BeyondChron,

Meatless Monday, another Geraci innovation featured in the film, was launched in Baltimore schools in 2009, to cut costs and reduce kids’ intake of cholesterol and saturated fats. Soon after, the Atlantic reported that some parents were unhappy with that change. Geraci himself told Urbanite magazine, “You wouldn’t believe the number of calls I get from parents on Mondays who are angry because their kids can’t get a chicken box.”

Although pro-meatless websites continue to promote Baltimore’s Meatless Monday, the school district’s published elementary/middle school menu for September 2012 does not show a single “meatless” day, Monday or otherwise. There is a vegetarian option available on 8 of the 19 school days in September, but it is always offered in addition to, not instead of, a meat-based option. Again, although Geraci did tell the SF audience that not all of his Baltimore innovations continued after his departure, he never mentioned the elimination of Meatless Monday.

Maybe Roberts should have asked him about that.

There is also the issue of the central kitchen. An adjacent story discusses Geraci’s plans for the kitchen. According to it, there will be a central one from which meals are made. Again, look at what happened in Baltimore.

You wouldn’t know any of this from watching Cafeteria Man, though. The movie never says that Geraci was not able to get the central kitchen he wanted, nor does it explain what changes Geraci was able to bring to the meal program in Baltimore, beyond the sourcing of local fruits and vegetables. We are told that he eliminated the “pre-plated” frozen meals, but get no clue how, absent the central kitchen of his dreams, he is able to cook the meals locally.

It was only after the screening, during audience question time, that we learned there was, in fact, no central kitchen. Geraci told the SF audience that he had raised the necessary $19 million to build that kitchen, but that it had not yet been built because people were still squabbling over the location.

However, the transcript of a Baltimore City school board meeting indicates that the kitchen has not been built because the district still lacks the funding. On July 24, 2012, district superintendent Andrés Alonso told the school board, “There is the reality that we do not have cafeterias in every single school. We don’t have a central kitchen because we haven’t had the money to do a central kitchen.” School board commissioner Robert Heck responded, “We would like to be able to do the things we want to do in terms of central kitchen and, obviously, resources. I hope the legislators will be listening as we move forward to alternative financing plans that will be able to allow us to be able to build these things.”

It’s not clear from today’s story whether Memphis has a central kitchen yet or whether it will be built, where and how funded.

Geraci, who looks like a chubby version of Colonel Sanders, may have the best intentions in the world. But before all of this happens, someone – is there a bias free, practically minded journalist anywhere out there? – and elected officials need to take a look at this. It’s very nice to provide free meals to kids, but what about their parents and the welfare checks they probably get? Who’s going to pay for this in a city where we are laying off people and funds are critically short? Shouldn’t some of this be part of churches’ duties?

As someone remarked, all of this reform needs to be taken with a grain of USDA regulated salt.

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