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Silverdocs 2011: Cafeteria Man

June 25, 2011

I don’t usually post on Saturdays but this is a special exception because since seeing Cafeteria Man at Silverdocs yesterday, I can’t get it out of my head.

Cafeteria Man follows Tony Geraci as he attempts to reform school food at Baltimore City public schools over two years. His results are extraordinary, from creating urban gardens and hospitality programs that educate and train students for real-world careers, to creating a school food program that gets 100% of its produce locally, to increasing the number of school breakfasts sold from 8,500 to 35,000 over a 6-month period — a little clever packaging (Orioles and Ravens logos) made the low-sugar, whole-grain breakfasts a hot commodity.

Shocking facts:

  • most of our food travels 1,500 miles before we eat it
  • a lot of money is wasted simply transporting crates of food from one side of a warehouse to another
  • one-third of U.S. kids born in 2000 will develop diabetes at some point in his/her lifetime
  • the National School Lunch Program serves approximately 30.5 million lunches per day at a cost of $8.7 billion a year.

The movie hits home not only because I remember cafeteria mystery meat and ‘Pizza Fridays,’ but because one of Geraci’s main messages is to Buy local. Maryland’s Best, a statewide initiative to promote local agriculture, meat, dairy and more, is featured heavily in the movie and since I spent most of my life in Maryland, I can attest to the incredible variety of local goods available.

Baugher’s even makes a guest appearance. I had lunch at Baugher’s last summer and shopped at its amazing farm market. Ever since, my friends and I have been trying to coordinate a date to go back for homemade ice cream and pies, produce that literally goes from farm to plate, and pick-your-own berries, apples, pumpkins and more.

I love where I live and have only become aware recently of how lucky I am.

Geraci, who quit his job a few months ago to become a school food reform consultant, puts it best: school food reform is ‘”letting a city heal itself using food as the vehicle.” He told the story of teenagers who had never eaten real (ie, not from a can) peaches before, amazed at the fuzzy skin. You see the faces of young kids as they try herbs for the first time, pick vegetables that they had grown from a garden, prepare meals using home-grown ingredients.

For a girl who grew up in an affluent suburb, it was eye-opening. Baltimore’s just an hour up the road but it feels like a lifetime away. Then again, is DC really any different? My neighborhood has an amazing farmers’ market but I wonder whether my neighbors across the river have access to anything like that.

If Baltimore, one of America’s poorest school districts, can reform its school food, why can’t other school districts? Sure, there are some places where it would be hard to eat local year-round — Alaska, I’m looking at you — but there’s no excuse for a box of apple juice counting as a serving of fruit, or kids growing up without ever eating corn on the cob, or bureaucrats who approve ‘nutritious’ school lunches for kids that they themselves wouldn’t eat.

As Geraci said, we’ve raised a generation of kids who think fruit is a flavoring.

Leaving Cafeteria Man, which doesn’t have a distributor yet but does have a website for more information, I was reinspired to eat local as much as possible. To give my money to farmers in Maryland and northern Virginia who will then put that back into the local economy, not send my hard-earned dollars to New Zealand for apples or to California for lettuce. Belonging to a CSA makes it easy this time of year but I feel like I need to be more conscious year-round, too.

(Eating local cheerleaders Michael Pollan, Chef Ann Cooper (the “Renegade Lunch Lady”), Will Allen and First Lady Michelle Obama make guest appearances.)

Plus, now I understand why my parents only let me buy school lunch on ‘Pizza Friday’ — I wouldn’t want my children eating school food, either.

Did you buy or bring lunch to school? How was your school food? I want to write a post soon about local food but don’t want to sound like a total yuppie or an urban wannabe hippie. Tips?

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 25, 2011 10:39 am

    Thank you for your kind words and enthusiasm. We are all part of making change–a responsibility and an honor both.

    • June 25, 2011 6:03 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Richard. I want to spread the word to as many people as possible and get this movie into more theatres — it should be required viewing, especially for parents!

  2. June 26, 2011 10:58 am

    This sounds like it was a really great film and I’m bummed I missed it. I’m pretty big on eating local when possible, but I know for some people it’s not easy. We’re definitely fortunate to live in the area we do.

    Also as a total sidenote, did you see the DC food banks are going to start charging people for produce. So you can get the crap food like you normally could but now you’re going to have to pay more for the healthy stuff. Heaven help us.

    • June 27, 2011 7:52 am

      They are planning more screening in the DC area so I’ll let you know if I hear anything.

      And yes — crazy about the food banks! These are people who need subsidized/free produce more than anyone — many of them can buy the crap themselves! — but at the same time, I do understand where the food banks are coming from. They can’t keep losing money… It’s a hard position to be in.

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  1. Jackie’s: Eating Local, Eating Well « Travel Eat Repeat

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