For the Sake of the Children

PEI hosts healthy school lunch champion, Chef Tony Geraci.

“You have the opportunity to make a global statement,” Chef Tony Geraci said, with an unbridled enthusiasm that is contagious. We’ve only just met and he’s already convinced me that PEI is capable of being a world leader in school lunch reform.

cheftony3

The PEI Home and School Federation (PEIHSF) invited Geraci to spend a week in late October on the Island to get a lay of the land, meeting with administrators, politicians, parents and, most importantly, students. The Federation’s ultimate goal – to have the English Language School Board commit to offering a universal school lunch program that is free, healthy, and locally-sourced.

“It’s a big jigsaw puzzle. You’ve got all the parts here, you just have to put them together,’ said Geraci, taking a sip of Upstreet Craft Brewing’s latest release, a black IPA. The analogy is an apt one. Geraci is just one piece of the puzzle, a charismatic outsider with the experience to back up his bold proclamations.

Geraci (“New Oowleans born and bred” but now calls New Hampshire home) has been down this road many times. He’s worked to overhaul lunch menus and reconnect kids with food in school districts throughout the US. His efforts have been chronicled in Cafeteria Man, a film that documents Geraci’s progressive initiatives during his time as food services director for the Baltimore public school district. These included implementing student-designed menus, building school gardens, and introducing vocational culinary arts training for high school students.

cheftony1

Joining us at Upstreet Craft Brewing on this muggy Saturday afternoon are PEIHSF president Lisa MacDougall, and past president Peter Rukavina. Rukavina’s chance meeting with Geraci at a screening of Cafeteria Man in the States was the spark that ignited Geraci’s visit to the Island. MacDougall led efforts to develop the original resolution for a provincial school lunch program. The resolution was submitted to the PEIHSF by the Montague Consolidated School Home and School Association and Montague Regional High School Parent Council, and passed on April 11, 2015.

Over the past year the PEIHSF has been working with local Home and School Associations and building momentum for their healthy lunch resolution. They have hired a registered dietitian, Tracy Michael, to assist with the development of a report on school food in Prince Edward Island.

While the final report has not yet been released, Michael was able to share a few preliminary findings. “Every school is serving pizza at least once a week,” she said. “This is concerning, because that’s very habit-forming year over year. There is also no cultural diversity in the meals being offered. Schools are not following the School Nutrition Policy developed by the PEI Healthy Eating Alliance either.”

It sounds downright depressing at first, however there are glimmers of hope. Several schools across the Island are spearheading efforts to provide students with healthy food and students are often heavily involved. Geraci will have the chance to see some these shining examples during his week-long visit (the first of many for this initiative, he predicts). Cooking up a meal with Premier Wade MacLauchlan, meeting with high school students at Kinkora Regional High School that have created a school garden, speaking with Chef Bev Campbell at Queen Elizabeth Elementary, touring the Epekwitk Gardens and Preserves, and delivering the keynote address at the PEIHSF’s semi-annual meeting are just a few excerpts from Geraci’s full-on schedule.

cheftony5

Discussing Geraci’s motivations for working on school lunch reform it becomes clear the kids are front and centre. “To serve someone something they’ve never had and see the look on their face when they take that first bite, that’s my greatest joy as a chef,”he said. “And I was a poor kid, I know what it is to be hungry. We have to stack the deck in favour of the kids… we have to be our brother’s keeper.”

When I ask his advice on how to keep the momentum going on PEI for school lunch reform, Geraci is adamant that the keys must be handed over to the kids and they must be involved at every step. “Don’t single out a champion, people are fallible,” he said.

“It’s a lot easier than people want it to be,” Geraci said, referring to change in general, then reiterating his belief that PEI is especially well-positioned to change its school lunch programming. “You have the leadership, you have the talent, you have the facilities. I’m a sailor so sailing analogies come naturally. Once you’ve charted the course you can always get to your destination. You may have to tack back and forth and adjust your sails, but you’ll get there.”

Geraci will use his time on PEI connecting with like-minded chefs, farmers, parents, and students that are investing their time and energy into building a food culture in Island schools that is inclusive, respects diversity, provides children with the nutrition they need to learn and grow, and is integrated into the learning curriculum. Hopefully Geraci’s visit will inspire these leaders and encourage more Islanders to rally behind the radical idea that our children should have access to healthy, locally-sourced food in our public schools. Because, as Geraci said, “Life is too short to eat crap.”

About Shannon Courtney

Shannon oversees all content creation for Salty and may be ‘slightly’ obsessed with proper apostrophe usage. When she’s not writing about food, she’s either cooking, eating, talking, or thinking about it. Her food adventures have included milking a Jersey cow in Australia, almost overdosing on maple syrup in Prince Edward County, and studying local food systems in Vermont as part of her Master’s thesis research. Shannon is also a holistic-nutritionist-in-training and strongly believes you CAN make friends with salad.

View All Posts