City schools food director to go part-time, but promises full-time commitment

The Baltimore schools' food guru, Anthony Geraci, will be scaling back his duties as director of the food and nutrition office in the coming year but plans to keep cooking up ideas to reform city students' diets.

Geraci, who in two years in the post has inspired a leaner, greener version of what appears on student lunch trays, said in an interview Tuesday that he and the school system agreed to cut his hours so that he can spend more time with his wife, who lives in New Hampshire. But he plans to continue to steer the direction of the food and nutrition office, sometimes from afar, and to promote the city's initiatives on a national scale. Pending city school board approval, school officials said, a day-to-day operations manager will be hired to handle the numerous projects that have sprouted since Geraci came to Baltimore in 2008.

Geraci, in his capacity as a nationwide childhood nutrition consultant whom the White House has tapped for first lady Michelle Obama's efforts in combating childhood obesity, will be better positioned to help the city move its food and nutrition initiatives forward, officials said.

"I'm an igniter," Geraci said. "I do a lot of catalytic work to get things started and in motion. That was always the master plan, so there's no deviation."

Geraci implemented the nationally acclaimed "Meatless Mondays," in which city schools serve up vegetarian dishes to kick off the week. He also established the Great Kids Farm — an abandoned Catonsville property turned organic garden that harvests food for meals and for profit. It's the beginning of a large-scale plan to have city schools buying and eating local.

Those projects are models for districts around the country, Geraci said, and the time he doesn't spend in Baltimore will give him more opportunities to do consulting work. "We have a responsibility to help other districts get these things done, too," he said.

Geraci said he embraced the plan for a part-time position, to reduce the time split between his Baltimore residence — a boat docked in the harbor — and his home in New Hampshire, where his wife is attending law school.

"It's definitely been a strain," said Geraci, who will be taking a cut in pay that has not been determined.

Geraci, the food services director for a small New Hampshire school district before coming to Baltimore, said he believed that after two years it was time to turn over the full-time reins here to someone from the area.

"The reason I was brought here originally was to change the paradigm and change the way we're doing business," Geraci said. "I've always thought it was really important that this whole thing be driven by somebody from Baltimore."

But Geraci and school officials said none of his plans — and there are many — will be put on the back burner.

"We're moving full-speed ahead, and Tony will continue to lead our efforts," said Michael Sarbanes, a spokesman for city schools.

Geraci will continue to oversee the school system's future nutrition projects and food programs, including the creation of an $8 million to $10 million centralized kitchen, a goal for Geraci since the outset.

Geraci denied a report that his decision was spurred by frustration over the slow pace of the initiative, which has fallen victim to the city's budget woes.

"I would always like to see things happen now," he said. "The reality is, there are steps and protocols that have to be followed. I tend to be running five to 10 steps in front of people, but that's just my nature."

Those who have observed Geraci's work in Baltimore echoed his sentiments that he doesn't have to be in the kitchen to keep the heat on the mission of reforming city school nutrition.

"He's not staying here in Baltimore to be a bureaucrat because he's not cut out for that; he's cut out to be an evangelist," said Richard Chisolm, a Baltimore filmmaker who will release a documentary on Geraci's efforts in the fall.

"He may feel like he's done everything he could to assemble the ingredients in Baltimore to leave us here to cook them up."