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Review: ‘Cafeteria Man’ A One Sided, Fly By Look At The Food Activism Of Chef Tony Geraci

Review: 'Cafeteria Man' A One Sided, Fly By Look At The Food Activism Of Chef Tony Geraci

Who is Tony Geraci? For director Richard Chisolm and everyone else involved in the slim, one-sided but no less interesting “Cafeteria Man,” he is a saint. Arriving on his houseboat in the marina of Baltimore, Maryland, he rolled up his sleeves and fought to reform school lunches for children in the city in his role as the new Director Of Food & Nutrition. Promising a program that emphasizes locally grown and nutritious food over frozen, pre-packaged slop, the ideas were big and some of the execution was grand. Did he achieve what he set out to do? That depends on who you ask, but the documentary never brings up that question.

In fact, we never really know who Geraci is. A trained chef, it’s not really clear how he came into food activism, why he lives on a houseboat, why he chose Baltimore to try and reform, or even what his own investment is in seeing this program through. Regardless, the focus on “Cafeteria Man” is witnessing the development of his vision, not necessarily the man himself, and what he proposes is certainly compelling. He argues that if local, fresher, tastier food product is available and cheaper than the meals provided by contractors, there is no reason why kids can’t have healthy lunches. But his plans don’t end there, with community “teaching” gardens grown by kids, afterschool dinner programs, greenhouses and more that are all part of a sustainable, citizen-and-student-driven food program. Sounds cool, right?

But of course, the bureaucracy of the Balitmore school board rears its ugly head, and for every two steps forward, Geraci is forced to take one step back. To schoolboard officials, it’s the just the unfortunate way of doing things, but to Geraci it’s a sign of hesitance in the face of change. Chisolm’s film ultimately presents a taste of the variety of initiatives Geraci puts into motion, in an idealized look at how dramatically this chef has re-oriented thinking on school lunches, and the relationship between food and kids. One of the most pleasurable sequences of the film follows a class of kindergarten kids to the teaching farm, as they see, smell and taste fresh herbs and vegetables — an eye-opener for many who live in ghettos where green space, let alone fresh produce, is a rarity. But there is another side to this story that isn’t being told.

Geraci abruptly leaves his position at the end of the film, taking on a part-time consulting role instead, seemingly leaving in triumph. But did he? A cursory internet search brings up more than one article that suggests a more complex story than the one fed in “Cafeteria Man” (this piece at Urbanite, for example). Not everyone saw Geraci following through on his promises, while others contend he spoke a good game and didn’t deliver, while the city of Baltimore itself may be to blame for not getting behind the man as much as they could. Chisolm isn’t interested in exploring these criticisms and the film suffers as a result, essentially coming off as a one-hour cheerleading session for Geraci.

There is no doubt that what Geraci aims to do — with plans to roll out his program nationally to schools across the country — is admirable, smart and better for everyone from students to teachers to administrators to parents. But presenting his work in Baltimore without a true account of the bumps, roadblocks and concerns does a disservice to Geraci and everyone who plans to work with him. The only way for his program to get better is to confront those challenges head on and with honesty, allowing Geraci to clearly show how can he can work with local governments and the community to address their issues. And while “Cafeteria Man” does its work as an advocacy piece, as a documentary it’s only an appetizer, hardly a full meal. [C] 

“Cafeteria Man” is now airing on the Documentary Channel.

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