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The New Meal

Tony Geraci and friends are transforming school food in Baltimore from farm to fork--and they want to take it national.

photographs by joseph tropea
Tony Geraci (right) with Great Kids Farm Supervisor Greg Strella.
A greenhouse at city-owned Great Kids Farm.
The regular cafeteria line at Hampstead Hill Academy.
Hampstead Hill Principal Matt Hornbeck.
Ariel Demas cooks with the kids at Hampstead Hill.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 6/3/2009

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The bounty fenced in on the south side of Hampstead Hill Academy has surpassed Matt Hornbeck's expectations. "We had so much rosemary we've been selling it to local restaurants," says the charter school's principal, showing off the chain-link-fenced rectangle of raised beds with a bamboo trellis. There are grapes, beans, squash, tomatoes, nets for climbing vines, and a big new compost drum next to the brick wall. Hornbeck says he's seen hummingbirds here, a treat for his 525 students, pre-school to eighth grade. "Some of them," he says, "had never seen a hummingbird before."

The garden is not a luxury, Hornbeck says, and even in Baltimore City's cash-strapped schools, is not beyond the means of any principal who would follow his example.

Hornbeck estimates the whole garden costs less than $2,000, after accounting for in-kind donations and sweat equity from volunteers. "Schools can raise--even with a modest fund raising arm--they can raise between $4,000 and $20,000 a year," he says.

Hornbeck, who graduated law school and worked as an educational consultant on school finance, got this garden rolling about four years ago. It is one piece of a larger curriculum, called Food for Life, involving cooking classes for the students, along with cultural education, science, math, art, music, and environmental stewardship.

With this garden and the cooking classes, Hornbeck has established Hampstead Hill as the honed edge of a revolutionary teaching program that is itself just a small piece of an even larger plan--a plan so ambitious that just describing it sounds hyperbolic.

It is a plan to transform the school-lunch system nationwide. It is a plan to make farm education a part of every U.S. child's basic course requirements. It is a plan to remake Americans' relationship to food.

Hornbeck is an evangelist for this plan, but he is not the leader. He is following innovative and powerful friends, including a Johns Hopkins University researcher, a nationally recognized curriculum expert (who happens to be the mother of the Academy's Food for Life teacher), and Tony Geraci, the Baltimore City Schools' director of food and nutrition, who is leading the charge to replace the pre-cooked, frozen meals served in Baltimore schools with locally-grown and prepared meals.

Kids at Hampstead Hill, a block south of Patterson Park, are now being taught to consider food in a way their parents probably seldom do. Hornbeck says this creates habits that will make them easier to teach now and healthier in the long run.

"We talk to kids about trans fats, high fructose corn syrup," Hornbeck says. "We educate them about it--how your body feels better when you eat [fresh, whole] foods, the difference between sustained energy and candy-bar energy."

As a six-year principal of an inner-city school, Hornbeck says he's seen the results that good nutrition and hands-on learning have on bad behavior. "We view it as a school-readiness issue," he says. "Just like getting enough sleep, or a clean uniform, a place for homework, etc. Food, food education, and nutrition are critical to school readiness, whether you're 4 or 54."

Hornbeck leads a guest down a spotless hall and through the empty cafeteria, and opens the door to what used to be a teachers' lounge. Inside the 20-by-16-foot room are 12 second-graders wielding knives.

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