The days of mystery meat, syrupy fruit cups and rubbery cheese pizza are a thing of the past at Memphis City Schools Nutrition Services, where, each school day, 20,000 salads are prepared from scratch using fresh, locally grown, mixed field greens.
Grahamwood Elementary students look at sweet basil and other herbs in the school’s new garden. Built with the help of Urban Farms and Bridges, the garden is one of several planned across the school district.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)
In cafeterias across the city, school children are eating – and seemingly enjoying – kale, radishes and sweet potatoes, as well as vegetable stir fries, pasta marina seasoned with fresh garden herbs and whole wheat rolls baked from scratch.
“They’re eating the food because we’re engaging them in the process, having really meaningful conversations with our kids about the food,” said Toni Geraci, MCS executive director of Child Nutrition, who arrived in Memphis in November to overhaul Tennessee’s largest food purchasing organization and make better use of the school system’s state-of-the-art, 217,000-square-foot kitchen at the Central Nutrition Center on Jackson Avenue.
Fresh produce may not seem revolutionary, but in the realm of school cafeteria fare – with a longtime reputation for being bland, over-processed, fattening and lacking in adequate nutrition – offering students healthy, nutrient-dense foods free of dyes and preservatives is making MCS’ nutrition program a national benchmark model.
“Things like Type II diabetes are pandemic here,” Geraci said. “It’s food that’s been killing us, and it’s going to be food that heals us.”
But Memphis students aren’t just consuming healthier foods; they’re harvesting them in hoop greenhouses and raised-bed gardens right on their own campuses.
“They’re more likely to try new foods if they were part of the process,” Geraci said.
Students are growing edible plants in at least 20 school gardens across the city, and that number continues to grow. Recent garden installations include Grahamwood and Peabody elementary schools.
“We’re really purposeful about starting school gardens in neighborhoods that have food deserts,” Geraci said, referring to urban pockets where fresh produce is hard to come by. “Southside, we’ve got a whole new wave of school gardens coming in. You’ve got to begin at the beginning.”
Geraci calls the program whose transformation he’s leading a “vertically integrated approach to child nutrition.”
“The kids are planning the menu, planting the seeds, nourishing the plants, and watching them grow into something that bears fruit,” Geraci said. “They’re consuming the food, taking the compostable waste and putting it back into the garden. We’re trying to teach our kids that in order for us to have a rich and vibrant Memphis 20 years from now we need to do some work today.”
When it comes to overhauling the way American children eat, Geraci – a third-generation chef with roots in New Orleans – is something of a rock star. He’s the subject of the award-winning documentary “Cafeteria Man,” which focused on Geraci’s ambitious efforts to radically transform Baltimore’s then-dysfunctional school nutrition program.
Geraci built a model based on feeding that system’s 83,000 students fresh, wholesome food purchased from local farms – a model he’s now implementing on an even grander scale in Memphis, where he’ll be responsible for serving three meals a day to the 156,000 children who’ll be part of the new consolidated Memphis-Shelby County schools system.
However, he said Memphis is much better positioned than Baltimore was to make the green transition, largely because the Bluff City is surrounded by rich, agricultural farmlands and a climate that enables producers to grow edible crops year-round.
“We’re really fortunate that we live in the richest delta country on the planet,” Geraci said. “Not just GMO corn, cotton and soy, but we can grow fresh fruits and vegetables, nutrient-dense foods. We’ve got cattle and poultry, we’ve got a lot of stuff here; we’re just not utilizing it appropriately.”
In addition, most food in the U.S. travels about 1,500 miles before it’s consumed. Purchasing from local farmers and growers will pump money back into the local economy, creating jobs, sustaining family farms. Geraci estimates the positive economic impact of a greener school nutrition program to be roughly $200 million annually.
“People talk about their tax dollars,” Geraci said. “We operate our entire system on federal reimbursement, so think of this as a way to take some of the money you’ve been sending to Washington and putting it back into your community through this federal reimbursement.”
Geraci is also collaborating with Shelby Farms and the Shelby County Corrections Division to bring back the prison-farming program that ended in the 1970s.
“There was a lot of civil unrest in the nation and people were really uncomfortable with inmates doing labor on farms, which smacked too close to slavery,” he said. “But the reality is that those guys fed each other, and they did it in a way that gave them transferable job skills.”
He has his sights set on 48 acres of community-owned property with a history of sustainable farming that was once considered a national model for corrections facilities.
And this time around, Geraci says, the program will be completely voluntary, offering inmates two days off their sentence for each day they spend farming. The program will also tie in vocational training to help participants develop marketable job skills.
“This dovetails with the whole notion of re-creating a food hub based in Memphis,” Geraci said. “The beauty of Memphis is that everyone is just one, maybe two generations away from living on a family farm. We’ve got an opportunity to recapture that lost knowledge.”