Anthony Geraci is a food and nutrition expert who has a tall order. He oversees the massive central kitchen and the entire food service system for Memphis (Tennessee) City Schools. But he was hired to do more than plan the 100-thousand meals served in the school system each day.
“Putting healthy kids in front of educators ready to learn, that’s the product. That’s what I’m supposed to produce,” says Geraci, executive director of child nutrition for the school district.
“Child nutrition is readiness. It is one of the tools for success in public education, that hungry kids don’t learn and kids that have great nutrition are prepared to learn. So one of the mandates that [Memphis City Schools] gave me was make this happen.”
In just 6 months on the job, Geraci has made significant changes to the program. One of the first of his sweeping mandates: Geraci cancelled all contracts for cookies, Pop Tarts, flavored milk, and what he calls “food on a stick” and “carnival food.”
“The major changes that we made are just the commitment to local, fresh, cooked-from-scratch delivery. We have launched the largest demonstration school garden project in the state’s history, where actually the food being grown [here] will be served in the cafeterias in just a few weeks.”
Geraci also expanded school meals to include after-school and breakfast service. This is all new to Memphis. But Geraci first launched his school meal initiative in Baltimore City Schools, turning an abandoned property into a huge organic farm to feed public school kids. He is also part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative to fight childhood obesity, been featured in two documentaries, and has become sort of a national celebrity when it comes to public school food service—with an increasing number of believers.
“I have a lot of anecdotal evidence from teachers and principals that will tell you that kids that are eating, there’s fewer behavior problems, there’s better test scores, there’s — definitely fewer visits to the nurse’s office.”
Geraci’s experiences are being backed by a growing amount of data showing his concepts and practices make a difference in the classroom—especially in the case of breakfast programs. According to the Food Research and Action Center and Harvard scientists, students who eat school breakfast increase their math and reading scores as well as improve their speed and memory in cognitive tests. They also have better attendance, fewer behavior problems, and higher attention spans.
Geraci balks at the idea that his practices are is too expensive and inconvenient for many public school systems. He says the changes in Memphis have brought more student participation in the meal program, greatly increasing school system revenue. And buying locally-grown pumps millions of dollars into the community’s economy.
“The reality is fresh food local food ultimately cost less money. For every dollar that I can spend in my community, it flips five times before it leaves my community. So I’ll spend $10 million in buying fresh fruits and vegetables in western Tennessee that will have a $50 million economic impact in western Tennessee.”