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Frequently Asked Questions
Here are the 10 questions we get asked most after people view the film:
(1) WHY DID TONY LEAVE BALTIMORE AND WHAT IS HE DOING NOW?
Tony left his job as Director of Food and Nutrition for the Baltimore City Public Schools because he felt he had taken his role as far as he could. Tony is a ‘fire starter,’ an idealist and innovator whose strength lies in coming up with creative ideas, finding ways to implement them, and rallying people to take action. While in Baltimore, he helped catalyze a movement that had taken root before he was hired. He left the city with confidence that the people and programs were in place to sustain the positive forward momentum created around school food. Tony now serves as Executive Director of the Memphis City Schools Nutrition Services, while continuing to speak nationally on school food reform issues. In Memphis, he oversees the Central Nutrition Center that provides over 200,000 meals a day, including breakfast, lunch, and At Risk Supper Meals for 110,000 students. Since his arrival in Fall 2011, the Breakfast in the Classroom program has more than doubled to 54,000 students. Tony initiated the At Risk Supper Meal Program, the first for the state of Tennessee, which provides 14,000 meals to 70 after school programs.
(2) WHAT'S BEEN HAPPENING IN BALTIMORE SINCE TONY LEFT?
Baltimore’s school food reform efforts continue under the leadership of a new managing director of food and nutrition. One of the crowning achievements of Tony’s tenure – Great Kids Farm – is a thriving, hands-on, educational resource. Since 2009, more than 5,000 students and teachers have benefited from the farm’s programs. (To learn more, visit: www.greatkidsfarm.org.) The Baltimore City Public Schools has continued to strengthen ties with local farmers, the After School Supper Program is reaching more parents/students, and a growing number of schools are incorporating salad bars. The school system is currently working to institute a classroom breakfast model based on data suggesting that student behavior and academic achievement improves as a result, with 25 schools participating to date. Unfortunately, Tony’s vision of creating a central kitchen that would allow the city’s students to benefit from freshly-cooked meals, as opposed to the heating of frozen entrees, has never been realized due to financial constraints and lack of clarity on the best path forward (e.g., one centralized kitchen or potentially a series of kitchens capable of reaching more schools). As in many urban school districts across the country, a majority of Baltimore City schools do not have fully functioning kitchens. In-school kitchens were replaced/dismantled decades ago in preference of labor-reducing, automated facilities designed for the reheating of mass-produced, pre-prepared foods transported from other parts of the country. Such systems, created in favor of cost-efficiency, have proven detrimental to health, nutrition, and the environment.
(3) WHAT CAN I DO TO CONTRIBUTE TO TODAY'S SCHOOL FOOD MOVEMENT?
Start by looking at how you can have an impact on the food being served at schools in your own community. Many national organizations have created assessment tools and resources that can help you create change in your own community. SEE RESOURCES FOR ORGANIZATIONS AND TOOLS. All schools that receive support from the USDA must develop wellness policies, with many schools creating working groups (e.g., school health teams, health advisory councils, or wellness councils) to help inform or create such policies. You might consider joining such a body, or if your school system doesn’t have one, take steps to create one.
(4) WHAT CAN COMMUNITIES DO THAT DON'T HAVE A VISIONARY LEADER LIKE TONY WHO CAN CATALYZE EFFORTS FOR CHANGE?
While it’s great to have a person in a leadership role who is a passionate and persuasive advocate for school food reform, it’s not essential. As important is having strong voices at the community level (e.g., parents, activists) that are vigilant and committed to pushing change forward. Part of what makes Tony an effective change agent is his ability to ‘be’ in the future he seeks to create. His optimism and focus on solutions, as opposed to problems, make it easier to rally others in support of a vision of healthier school food.
(5) HOW DID ALICE AND OTHER STUDENTS FEATURED IN THE FILM MOBILIZE TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
K-12 students generally have limited opportunities/avenues for advocating for change in their educational systems. However, their voices can be amplified effectively with the help of pro-active and caring adults. Alice and her peers were encouraged to take action by their social studies teacher, who had experience working as a community organizer and is a great believer in applying what’s learned in the classroom to real world situations. Their teacher supported the students in creating a School Food Bill of Rights and encouraged their efforts to ‘speak truth to power.’ (To learn more about youth-led efforts to create a national Youth Food Bill of Rights, visit: http://www.youthfoodbillofrights.com)
(6) WHAT CAN PARENTS/CITIZENS DO TO PROMOTE HEALTHER SCHOOL FOOD?
Because they are overburdened with competing demands, school system administrators, principals, and teachers are often reluctant to embrace change given the time, effort, and expense involved. For this reason, active parent involvement is essential to transforming school food. Parents are able to mobilize in numbers and make their voices heard – at Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) meetings, before School Boards, etc. The plethora of social media channels available also make it possible for parents and citizens in general to organize around school food and share resources and approaches. School food reform is a political, public health, economical and human rights issue that demands that voters stay informed and take action on relevant legislation (e.g., the Farm Bill) that directly impacts how and what students eat at school. Many organizations exist at the local and national level that help citizens to understand the complexity of the issues involved. (See recommend resources.) Just as important is modeling good eating – and even growing a garden with your kids – at home.
(7) HOW IS IT POSSIBLE TO AFFORD HEALTHY FOOD IN SCHOOLS GIVEN BUDGET CONSTRAINTS AND THE FACT THAY INEXPENSEIVE, "UNHEALTY" FOODS ARE SO READILY AVAILABLE?
Every community is different, requiring that school systems invest the time and effort in identifying where limited dollars can be better spent. As Tony emphasizes in the film, he was able to achieve cost savings by purchasing certain foods locally, identifying inefficiencies, and revisiting existing contracts with major suppliers. While some school systems have the infrastructures in place that allow for cost-effective implementation of healthier foods and locally-grown produce, other school districts have found that the only way to achieve across-the-board change that they can afford is through outsourcing school food delivery/service to companies that can offer lower costs due to the sheer scale of their operations. School food reformers like Tony Geraci are convinced that whatever up-front increase in expenditure is required to feed children healthier food will be more than made up for in future cost benefits in terms of heathcare and ecology.
(8) WHAT IF YOUR SCHOOL SYSTEM OPERATES IN A CLIMATE WHERE YEAR-ROUND GROWING ISN'T POSSIBLE? HOW CAN YOU OBTAIN FRESH FOODS LOCALLY?
Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions for school systems operating in climates with limited growing seasons. Options include canning, freezing, and warehousing produce. Hoop house production can likewise extend the growing season. (To learn more about the hoop house initiative featured in the film and how it was created, visit: http://www.realfoodfarm.org.) In Baltimore and other cities, creative partnerships have emerged among the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to facilitate the availability of local produce year round; yet this often needs to be supplemented by foods grown in warmer climates. Almost every municipality in America has the capability to preserve, store, and distribute much of its locally-produced food if the community is encouraged to re-imagine and re-tool its resources.
(9) CAN FRUITS AND VEGETABLES GROWN THROUGH SCHOOL FARMS AND HOOP HOUSES REPLACE THE NEED FOR PURCHASING PRODUCE FROM OUTSIDE VENDORS?
No. While school farms and hoop houses play a vital role in teaching students how food is grown, connecting them to ‘hands on’ learning experiences, and developing valuable skills, these efforts are largely symbolic in terms of the quantity of fresh produce that can be produced. Rules and regulations also exist that sometimes prohibit student-grown produce from being served in cafeterias. School gardening and farming enterprises should not be considered a substitute for the large-scale production farming that is required for most school food systems. But efforts to localize the contracted school food vendors’ product sources, and to meaningfully connect student farms and gardens with those sources are beneficial to all concerned.
(10) HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO OVERHAUL SCHOOL FOOD SO THAT EVERY CHILD HAS ACCESS TO HEALTHY FOOD CHOICES?
It can take years. Tony’s efforts in Baltimore were sometimes met with skepticism by parents seeking overnight solutions. It took nearly 40 years for school food systems in America to be dismantled to the point where most urban school kitchens can no longer facilitate real cooking or the cleaning of plates and utensils. Re-engineering the core infrastructure needed to prepare and serve healthy food in a sustainable manner is costly and time-consuming. That said, some of the quicker steps that can be taken include getting rid of the pre-plated lunches and vending machines that serve unhealthy beverages and snacks. The key is for parents, school leadership, and school food providers to take active steps each year toward a healthier system.