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Cafeteria Man

November 4, 2011
Cafeteria Man

One of the universal punch-lines is the terrible quality of institutional food, particularly in public schools. In Baltimore City, the lunches were so distasteful to the students that a small group of them carried an actual school lunch to the school board’s headquarters on North Avenue and said, “You eat it!”. This was the situation that Tony Geraci set out to change, and his efforts are chronicled in Cafeteria Man.

Over his two-year tenure as the director of the Baltimore City Public School System’s food department, Geraci managed to bring about a number of impressive reforms, often using the tried and true method of doing first and asking permission after the fact.

But this is part and parcel of Geraci’s ebullient character, which comes across clearly in the film. His enthusiasm is infectious, getting the audience nodding in agreement when he goes off on one of his rants. It’s hard to imagine anyone not being swayed by his charisma and zeal.

And yet it’s not a one-man show; Geraci would be the first to point out that the kids are most important stakeholders here. We see them over and over, telling us what they think about the old and the new menus, tasting a fresh, locally-grown, tree-picked peach — a first for some of them — working in a community garden, cooking for a community dinner, and even testifying in front of a congressional committee.

The depressingly unsurprising thing about Geraci’s work is how hard it is to get anything through a government bureaucracy, particularly in Baltimore. Anyone who watched The Wire knows a bit about the situation, and the film generally skirts the issue rather than becoming overtly political. But it still comes through with the chief operations officer talking about how he appreciates Geraci’s efforts, but there’s a procurement process that must be respected.

And yet, while he may have slowed down, once Geraci got the ball rolling it was pretty near impossible to stop, especially when he showed that serving high-quality, locally-sourced food could often be done more cheaply than using commodity-sourced and shipped low-quality food. Even after his departure for Memphis, Geraci still advises Baltimore as it pushes forward on his vision of a central kitchen which can cook fresh meals daily for all the schools, and then distribute them for lunch.

As he comments personally, it’s incredible to believe its possible to set a child who is hungry, ill-fed, or hopped up on sugar down in front of a teacher and expect him or her to learn. The goal is actually to get healthy students ready to learn and grow, and providing them with a healthy diet is only a side effect of that goal. And as the cafeteria man, Tony Geraci shows us that this can be done.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: unusually for a documentary, I’m going to give this one a pass on the strength of one of the (female) students giving her oral testimony to a (female) member of congress.

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