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Seeds of change

Organic farm will give city school students a chance to get their hands dirty while learning about nutrition
By Jill Rosen
November 24, 2008
Baltimore Sun

Driving on U.S. 40, shoving along with the traffic past strip malls, gas stations and drive-through restaurants, there's no apparent reason to give Nuwood Road, landmarked by an auto supply store, a second glance.

But if one did turn in and hang a quick right, he or she would see what could soon become the linchpin for bringing wholesome eating to Baltimore City schools.

Tony Geraci, the system's new food service director, plans to turn the 33 surprisingly rural acres in Baltimore County into an organic farm where schoolchildren will learn about healthy food and sustainable living, by digging in the dirt, planting seeds and watching fruits and vegetables come to life.

It's to be called Fresh Start Farm, because, as Geraci says, Baltimore, with its disheartening poverty and obesity rates, needs a fresh start.

"If you walk through Baltimore and see the trash, that's [the remnants of] what our kids eat," the former chef says, speaking of the chip bags, soda bottles and fast food containers that litter city streets. "This is what these kids know. But they'll see this farm and see that they can have their own little plant on their stoop at home. And that even in some burned-out neighborhood in the city, they can have a garden that will support life."

Geraci walked the weeded-over property recently, stepping through tangles of scrub grass, past the hulks of fallen trees, pointing to the greenhouses and a long-abandoned stone barn that, though dilapidated, might still have something left to give. Years ago, the city purchased the former reformatory/orphanage with the idea that it could be turned into a nature center, but for at least a decade, Geraci says, the land was largely forgotten.

While he and his newly hired farm manager, Greg Strella, survey the land, they enthusiastically describe their plans.

Under the shaded canopy of the forest, near the brook that runs through the property on its way to the nearby Patapsco River, they'll grow shiitake and oyster mushrooms.

In the sloping fields, they'll plant corn, squash, micro-greens, herbs, tomatoes, peppers - dozens of vegetables.

Cherry, apple, pear and peach trees will eventually fill out an orchard while blueberry bushes will sweeten the perimeter.

Everything will be organic.

"Imagine this chock-full of food growing that kids will have planted," Geraci says. "I see them sleeping on the grass, looking up at the stars, sitting around a campfire - and this is in the heart of Babylon."

That's just the plants. In the barn, Geraci wants to bring in goats, sheep, chickens and cows. He'd like to try beekeeping. And in the name of sustainability, he's counting on building a compost station and a worm farm.

It sounds ambitious. Geraci, however, is anything but daunted. He sees the entire plan - from mushrooms to worms - coming together in phases over the next year. Moreover, he believes the farm will be paying for itself in two years.

"It sounds like a lot of jabber," he concedes. "But it's very real. This is very doable."

The farm is part of Geraci's overall strategy to get city schoolchildren eating healthier meals and making them more aware of the environment and how their food choices affect it.

Like food directors at schools all over the country, he's cutting back on frozen entrees and making deals with area farms to get things like fresh Maryland peaches onto children's lunch trays. He jokes that before he got to town, the most important tools in the school kitchen arsenal were box-cutters. Earlier this year he instituted a "breakfast box" program to encourage kids who might otherwise skip the meal to instead grab the containers with milk, 100-percent juice, low-sugar cereal and a high-protein snack.

Baltimore recruited him this year from New Hampshire, where he led a public school food services department and founded a program called First Course, a culinary arts school for young people who are low-income, disabled or recovering from addiction.

Here, Geraci's job is fraught with challenges. Making good food is the easy part - it's getting children to make the right choices outside of school that's tough.

A 2007 survey found one-fifth of high school students in Baltimore City were obese, according to the city's Health Department. Students in the city were more likely to be overweight than those elsewhere in Maryland. And, rates of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes in adults are also higher in the city - particularly among blacks.

Nationally, obesity among children and adolescents has increased by about 66 percent during the past decade.

Geraci, who grew up in public housing in New Orleans and, in his adult life, has struggled with diabetes and weight issues, thinks he understands what the young people of Baltimore are up against. As he puts it, "I know what welfare cheese tastes like."

Matt Hornbeck, principal at Hampstead Hill Academy near Highlandtown, is eager for his students to take field trips to the farm. With more than 80 percent of his students coming from households that fall below the poverty line, he knows if the kids don't learn how to eat right in school, they might not learn it at all.

"If you come to school on 20 ounces of Mountain Dew and a bag of Funyons, you feel and act a lot different than if you have something healthy to eat," he says. "We view food and nutrition as a readiness issue - like having enough sleep and having space to do your homework."

Hampstead Hill students have been helping to tend a small garden on school grounds. The school also has a food educator who travels from class to class, inviting kids to help cook nutritious dishes like guacamole, tabouli and stir-fry. Based on how kids have responded to those programs, Hornbeck thinks the farm can't help but work.

"A sixth-grade boy is more likely to try guacamole if he's had a role in preparing it," the principal says.

Geraci hopes to get the project off the ground with grant money and a lot of volunteer help. Master gardeners, horticulturists, plumbers and electricians have already offered their time, advice and sweat equity, he says.

He figures it will take about a half-million dollars in seed money. But once crops begin coming in, and students are harvesting everything from heirloom tomatoes to free-range eggs, Geraci is banking on the project breaking even - with a little clever marketing on his part.

Though Geraci is expecting a high yield from the farm, it won't be anywhere near enough vegetables to support the city school lunch program. He has other ideas for the harvest. He sees money coming in from selling the produce to area restaurants that not only appreciate local ingredients, but would want to give a hand to the city schools. He is thinking about starting a CSA, a community-supported agriculture organization where people could "invest" in the farm and be rewarded with shares of produce through the growing season. He's even considering starting a farmers' market - or bringing the goods to established local markets.

"We're not going to be a limited-palate kind of place. We're going to really be producing some interesting, good stuff."

Cafe Hon in Hampden is one of the restaurants that is already committed to buying Fresh Start Farm produce.

Owner Denise Whiting believes in what Geraci's trying to do. She thinks that if Alice Waters could turn Berkeley, Calif., on to seasonal, local ingredients by opening the famous Chez Panisse in the 1970s, that 30 years later Baltimore should be ready for its own local eating revolution.

"It's teaching kids a new subject and that subject is food," she says. "Food does not come in a tortilla chip bag. Food does not come in a box. ... Real food comes from the farm."

She'd love to see city kids head down to the farm and find out how they can "grow" a pizza.

"What if Tony plants a pizza garden? What if he takes a plot and plants tomatoes and basil and peppers and garlic and oregano? You start with something they can absolutely, 100 percent relate to," she said. "It's about education."

At the farm-to-be, crews will begin breaking ground this week, hauling away weeds and dead tree limbs to prepare the orchards and prime the fields.

One day last week, Geraci was showing off a former kitchen on the property that had been stripped bare of anything useful, with a musty odor hanging in the dusty air. But all the food service director saw was potential, and all he smelled was a home-cooked breakfast sizzling on a future griddle.

"Three months from now," he said, "this will be filled with sparkling stainless steel."