Officials Want To Rid School Lunches Of Junk Food

As children across the country head back to school, some school districts want to improve school lunch offerings to encourage healthier eating among students. Guest host Jennifer Ludden speaks with Tim Cipriano, who leads food services for Connecticut's New Haven Public Schools system. Cipriano is joined by Tony Geraci, food service director for Baltimore public schools. The two tell how they are changing how kids for more on their plans for the upcoming school year.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

We turn now to two men trying to implement healthier eating in schools.

Lunchtime has historically been a time for students to socialize, take a break, and eat what they what. But a growing number of school districts are trying to make school lunch a time not just to get full but get healthy.

Here to talk about what they're doing to make school lunches healthier are Tim Cipriano - he's the New Haven Public Schools executive director of food services. And also with us is Tony Geraci. He's the food service director for Baltimore Public Schools.

Welcome to you both.

Mr. TONY GERACI (Food service Director, Baltimore City Public Schools): Hey, welcome. I'm glad to be here.

Mr. TIM CIPRIANO (Food Service Director, New Haven Public Schools): Thanks for having us.

LUDDEN: Tony, let me start with you. You had a varied career. You used to own several restaurants. You were a professional race car driver at one point. How did you find yourself in a public school cafeteria?

Mr. GERACI: Well, I was born and raised in New Orleans. I was a successful restaurateur and got into the brokerage business, had an accident, spent about a year in the hospital, had an epiphany about my life, and realized that I'd spent most of my life chasing money and not doing positive things.

And the school district that I raised my children in asked me to help them because I was a chef and a restaurateur and a businessman, to turn their school lunch program from a typical chicken nugget factory into a place that, you know, served real food, and I was happy to do it.

LUDDEN: Tim, you're about to go into your second school year there in New Haven. Can you give me a sense of how the menu's changed since you took over?

Mr. CIPRIANO: We like to think outside the lunchbox. We've eliminated chicken nuggets in all our schools, and that's just huge by any means, and we added oven roasted chicken on the bone. It's not breaded. It's just like you would take a chicken, cut it up into eight pieces and roast it in the oven at home, served with a variety of sauces with real mashed potatoes. I mean, we use potatoes in our mashed...

LUDDEN: Really? Not the flakes?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CIPRIANO: No, we get potatoes that come out of the ground with dirt on them that we wash and we mash ourselves.

LUDDEN: Now, where do you get them?

Mr. CIPRIANO: From the farm. Where else do you get potatoes?

LUDDEN: Okay. Tell me about this farm. And Tony, I understand you even took over, you created a whole new farm for the school system there in Baltimore.

Mr. GERACI: Yeah. I was given a 33 acre abandoned orphanage, and I got to recreate it as the Great Kids Farm. It's now a 33 acre organic farm where we grow about, I don't know, 40 different kinds of fruits and vegetables now. We have goats and chickens, and pigs and, you know, it's a real working farm.

But it's also a place where you can begin a reasonable conversation about food with kids. You know, many of the kids that I work with and Chef Tim works with are urban kids that have not had an opportunity to experience farm life or even to...

LUDDEN: To learn that potatoes come from the ground?

Mr. GERACI: Yeah. Right. And you know, until - you know, a kid gets a chance to like walk down a row of tomatoes that he or she planted and pluck a little cherry tomato off the vine that's still warm from the summer sun and plop it in their mouth and that flavor explodes - that's something you cannot teach in a book.

LUDDEN: But here's the thing you always hear when this idea about fresh foods in schools comes up. Isn't it supposed to be more expensive? And you've got tight school budgets...

Mr. GERACI: Yeah, it's not more expensive, you know? I wrote the first RFP in Maryland history calling for only Maryland-grown fruits and vegetables to be purchased by the Baltimore City Public School System. We serve 85,000 kids daily here, and like I can buy local peaches for eight cents a pieces versus 14 cents for the same portion size packed in a can of corn syrup that traveled 2,200 miles to get here.

I can buy Maryland apples for six dollars a case versus 56 dollars a case for Washington Apples. And don't get me wrong. I think Washington Apples are great. I just don't think they should travel across the country to get here.

LUDDEN: I was also interested to read that you managed to redirect some of the money coming into the school from those vending machines.

Mr. GERACI: Yeah, and that was actually at another district. It wasn't here in Baltimore.

LUDDEN: Okay.

Mr. GERACI: But we partner with special ed and the special ed kids manage the vending machines and we used healthy products in the vending machines. And rather than the money going to support other programs, the money - we split it 50-50, that, you know, we supported, you know, Special Olympics and different sort of Special Ed projects.

LUDDEN: When we were setting up this interview, we discovered that you two already know each other.

Mr. GERACI: Yeah, oh yeah. I...

Mr. CIPRIANO: We do.

LUDDEN: It is it a small community of healthy school lunch promoters out there?

Mr. GERACI: Well, I don't know about a small community, but Tim and I are part of a group of food service directors and chefs that represent the 20 largest urban school districts in America, and you know, we're working together to share, you know, our strengths and share the things that makes sense, so we're not stepping on the same landmines, you know?

And you know, if Tim figures something out before I do, he's on the horn to me and we talk about. And I think that - look, these are our children. This is America's children, you know? Why aren't we pooling all of our resources together to do the right things for these kids?

We spend billions of dollars buying school buses and books and desks and supporting salaries for education, but if you put a kid in front of a teacher that is hungry or jacked up on sugar, all that money goes out the window because that teacher is unable to deliver his or her lesson plan to that child.

LUDDEN: Tim, do you have any sense that you might actually be changing the palette of these children? I mean are you introducing things to them that they're going to carry this eating well further in their lives?

Mr. CIPRIANO: Absolutely. At the beginning of last school year we served Connecticut-grown and, you know regionally-grown - New Hampshire, Vermont, New Jersey - peaches, and kids did not know what they were. They didn't know what this round fruit was that had black on it, and you had to explain to them that this was a peach, and they thought that peaches came cut up in juice and cans.

We're really trying to educate the kids on real food. We have school gardens that we're growing sun gold tomatoes, these tiny little yellow cherry tomatoes. The kids pop them in their mouth. And like Tony said, you know, they get that burst of energy. It's an amazing experience when the kids are really hands-on involved.

LUDDEN: Do you think they go home to mom and dad and maybe start asking them for some of this food? Do you think your message is spreading there?

Mr. CIPRIANO: Yeah, absolutely.

Mr. GERACI: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Mr. CIPRIANO: In Connecticut, when we had the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program several years ago, when it was first introduced, jicama sticks were one of the items that was being ordered by many school districts, and then one of the food service directors in Connecticut went to the local grocery store and the produce manager tracked her down and said, what are you doing with jicama in the schools?

And she was, you know, kind of surprised that this question was being asked and she's like, why? And he said all these parents are asking us to order jicama in the grocery store because their kids can't stop talking about it in school and when they get home, and now they want to eat jicama.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERACI: It's profound stuff. Look, in one generation, fruit has become a flavor. It's not food, you know? And I think that we have an opportunity to reclaim, you know, a lost generation of children and reintroduce them to simple things like a peach, you know? And this is doable, it's cost-effective, but more importantly, it's our responsibility, I think, as part of education to really give them real education and give them all the tools and all of the things necessary so they can be successful, and good nutrition is like the cornerstone to education.

LUDDEN: Tony Geraci is the food service director for Baltimore Public Schools, and he joined us from his office in Baltimore. Tim Cipriano is New Haven Public School's executive director of food services, and he joined us from Connecticut Public Radio.

Thanks so much to both of you.

Mr. CIPRIANO: Thank you very much.

Mr. GERACI: Thanks for having us.

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