Posted by lemonjelly on:
The name Tony Geraci might not sound familiar right off the bat, but for anyone who's been observing the controversy over the state of the American food programs in our grade schools may have heard of the uproar caused by Baltimore City Schools' attempt to implement a "Meatless Monday" lunch. That was Tony, the food service director, who started it.
It sounded relatively simple and innocent, didn't it? It resulted in a backlash from people around the nation, aghast that one man would launch a personal crusade against meat and deprive our growing children the necessary protein required for them to grow strong and become the backbone of our wonderful country. He received hate mail and protest campaigns from the meat associations. Never mind that many countries and societies around the world thrive without meat and have luscious and tasty cuisines.
So, why did he do it? Because he knew the children of Baltimore deserved more than USDA commodity pre-packaged food. He wanted his clients, the students in his district, to have access to real, fresh fruit and vegetables. That was his goal, and Meatless Monday was one of many ways he could implement change into the school system's food, provide healthy nourishment to the kids, and educate them at the same time.
Cafeteria Man is a fascinating documentary, filmed as the events unfolded in real time. Director Richard Chisolm and producer Sheila Kinkade happened to be onhand in 2008 when Tony joined the Baltimore City Schools as a relative unknown and the state of the school lunch programs hadn't become nationwide conversation. They locked onto the story early, knowing the topic would soon be critical, but not knowing if Tony would succeed or fail in his quest. He starts out as an inspired man, sitting down with a group of children to ask them what their needs were. We see him begin his program with baby steps, letting kids pick a few herbs for themselves, smell them, taste them, and he asks them what they sense about them. His plan is to relieve Baltimore's dependence on commodity government food like peach servings packed in corn syrup and replace them with real peaches, grown within Maryland, which turn out to cost significantly less than the commodity portions. He describes a child's first time touching the soft fuzz of a fresh peach, smelling the sweet ripe aroma and then taking that first bite with the juices bursting out and dripping down their arms. You and I in Santa Barbara, blessed with an abundance of gorgeous peaches from our farmers' markets or perhaps with a tree of our own, know exactly what this is like. For some of Tony's students, this was the first time in their lives.
Tony is vivacious and gregarious throughout the documentary, and not one to deny that part of his motivation comes from struggles with his own weight. It's this personal inspiration and commitment to making a positive difference that drives his energy to source cafeteria food entirely from Maryland farms, and into starting a farm for local children to learn about growing food, help till and harvest it, and ultimately get to eat the food they've grown. He makes plans for a central kitchen to process and prepare local food for schools. He sits down with the lunch ladies to understand and champion their difficult task of preparing healthy food with little to no resources of quality product.
Upon creating a paid internship food program big enough to provide 50 part time jobs to students, he's deeply moved when five times that many kids show up to apply for the positions. Have a tissue nearby, it's heartbreaking.
Like many businesses and organizations, the school system is weighed down with bureaucracy and this is a constant struggle for a man who sees his quest only as a good thing. It tries his patience many times.
How does the story end? That's for you to find out. Watch the film. Or google it if you want, Tony's kind of a big deal now. People who attended the Tuesday afternoon showing raved about it overall. Regardless the outcome, Cafeteria Man is about one man who wants to put change on the school menu and who recognizes that customer service is a big part of his work. And who are his customers? The children of Baltimore. This is an inspirational movie about a regular guy, not a celebrity chef, not a TED fellow, but a man down in the trenches with his customers, making a difference.
Cafeteria Man is part of the Screen Cuisine series in the SBIFF.
1:00 pm, Saturday, 1 Feb. Metro 1
8:05 am, Sunday, 5 Feb. Metro 2