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

by Kevin Jagernauth
October 24, 2012 10:27 AM
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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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  • Dana Woldow | October 30, 2012 12:34 PMReply

    I saw "Cafeteria Man" in San Francisco; you can read my review here:
    Cafeteria Man Tony Geraci: hype or hope?
    I've been actively involved with school food reform in SF since 2002, and I can assure you that Geraci and this film had no impact whatsoever on our work here. It is more than a little troubling that the distributor of this puff piece would try to claim the credit for inspiring efforts which have already been moving forward for a decade.

  • Steve Ladd | October 31, 2012 5:50 PM

    Dana, not sure why you are so negative about Cafeteria Man. We had very positive feedback from the SF Food Bank folks, Slow Food and others who helped organize the screening and the meeting we had the next day with SF School administrators. SF Food Bank rep wrote us this afterwards: "It suggested what’s possible, in a non-threatening way. It demonstrated that we are paying attention to what’s out there." And in Atlanta there was praise from event organizers who called the screening "incredibly helpful" for moving forward their goal of serving 5 million locally sourced meals.

    Your long, hard work on this issue in SF is very much appreciated. We link to some of your great resources from our site. The screening was only one part of the long-term effort you are part of to help bring greater change to the SF school food program. You and the others locally are the ones who will ultimately help make the change happen in SF.

  • Steve Ladd | October 25, 2012 1:24 AMReply

    As the distributor of this film, I have to say your review runs counter to the reception and impact we've seen Cafeteria Man have at a variety of screenings -- from Atlanta to Dallas, San Francisco to Washington, DC, and more. It inspires people with a vision of what's possible and encourages them to take action to improve school food programs in their communities. It doesn't gloss over the difficulties -- you certainly see Tony's frustrations with the challenges he faces. Tony has had even greater success in Memphis, a bigger district which has a central kitchen. For more info on what he has accomplished since leaving Baltimore, and other resources that help fill out this film, visit

  • Richard Chisolm | October 24, 2012 5:40 PMReply

    As the director of Cafeteria Man, I was not contacted or interviewed for this review. That is unfortunate since the reviewer made spurious assumptions of what the film intended to be and used information from a magazine article that was rife with errors. We did not portray Tony Geraci as a saint, nor was the film a 'portrait' documentary about his life. The film was deliberately a glimpse of aspirations to reform school food in Baltimore against formidable obstacles and a shameful history of systemic decline. And Mr. Geraci neither left Baltimore "abruptly" in our film nor in real life. The fact that our independent documentary has screened at over twenty festivals, received awards at three, and been highly successful in advancing a national conversation on its subject seems not to figure into this reviewer's critique of the film he would like to have seen.

  • jb | October 25, 2012 11:38 AM

    director's aren't supposed to be contacted for reviews, that's sort of counter to the point.

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