Cafeteria Man

CafeteriaManEach year, I track down food films to be shown at the food co-op in which I work. Each year, I’m guided by the choices of SYRCL’s Wild and Scenic Film Festival, but in previous years, I discovered many films on my own. This year, I was incredibly lucky because Wild and Scenic screened some amazing food films, so I was able to just follow suit.

Our first screening, on February 1, actually won the award for Best of Festival. “Cafeteria Man” deserved the honor.

Frustrated by the pre-plated, packaged, and highly processed foods with which the cafeteria presented them each day, a group of school children took it upon themselves to share the food with school administration. That moxie inspired a change in the way the Baltimore School System viewed their food program, and Tony Geraci was hired as the Food and Nutrition Director.

Geraci made sweeping changes to the food system, introducing fresh produce, freshly cooked meals, and sourcing food as locally as possible. He involved the students in learning how food is grown, how to prepare it, and how to serve it.

The empowerment and wonder on children’s faces as they taste food freshly picked from the soil is reason enough to watch the film. Witnessing their joy when they get to eat the food they’ve prepared is another.

“I can’t believe we made the salsa,” said one boy, his face beaming with pride. “It tastes like professional people made it.”

Geraci is another major reason to watch “Cafeteria Man.” He’s passionate. It’s easy to identify with him. He wants to make change. He wants that change to happen now. Just like most of us, he’s frustrated with being forced to wade through the muck of bureaucratic requirements.

When asked what his greatest challenge is, Geraci answers, “The adults – that’s the hardest part of my job.”

And he’s endearing. The job means so much to him, he’s possessed by it. It’s apparent that Geraci feels that kids deserve to experience real food.

“We need to start treating our kids like the clients that they are,” he says at a convention for the Baltimore school food workers.

“The jobs that we have are because of our kids,” he reminds everyone.

Through helping children receive one of their most fundamental needs, real food, Geraci sees himself helping the future. He sees it as a way to help the city heal itself, using food as the vehicle.

There is still a long way to go in terms of guaranteeing quality meals for school children across the country, but after watching “Cafeteria Man,” you’ll be filled with the hope and inspiration needed to keep the momentum going.

Nika the Breadnik

There are few things homier than the smell of baking bread. Nika Franchi, also known as Breadnik, seems to carry a whiff of fresh bread around her like a peaceful aura.

“There’s something very nurturing and something very mothering about working with dough,” Franchi said.

That care and attention comes out in her work. Her bread became an instant hit at BriarPatch, but she wasn’t always a baker. Her professional life began as a classically trained musician. After that, she was a globetrotting translator.

“Four years ago, I didn’t know anything – the word yeast would throw me into a panic,” she laughed.

One day, she decided to try her hand at bread making. The first attempt was successful, as was a second, and then she failed. Franchi didn’t let that failure stop her. She kept working at it until she figured out the process and was happy with her creations.

Soon after, fate stepped in. She brought a loaf of her bread to her local farmers market in Ohio to give to a friend. The friend didn’t meet her, so Franchi decided to leave it with the market manager. The manager tried it and wanted more, and Breadnik was born.

When the economy turned south, Franchi became a full time bread baker, selling 150 loaves a week as well as selling soups and preserved foods.

As popular as her bread was in Ohio, her Nevada County friends said, “We want you here.” Originally from Moscow, Russia, Franchi had lived in many places, but Nevada County was home. She, her husband, and her youngest daughter decided to pack up their equipment and move. They now live outside of Grass Valley.

Currently, Breadnik produces around 150 loaves a week. All of the recipes are Franchi’s creations, based on the memories of breads consumed during vacations in Italy. The business is expanding sustainably, though that requires her to work a baker’s schedule – six days a week. “I’m always either mixing or baking,” she said.

Living locally and sustainably is one of Franchi’s main focuses. She’s working with local farmers and selling to the local markets. She’s also using available ingredients to create a bread of the month as well as her staple loaves, including the low gluten Russian Coriander Rye.

“With my bread, I reflect the … seasons,” she explained. “It’s a lot more meaningful to do something that’s local. It’s a lot better for my soul, too.”

More information on Breadnik can be found at her blog, her Facebook page, or by calling (530) 913-9673.

Symbiotic Sustenance

I’ve been captivated with the way fermented foods make me feel for quite some time. If my digestion gets a little wonky, all I have to do is add a bit of raw, fermented sauerkraut to dinner, and I’m back to 100 percent.

My favorite sauerkraut is from In The Kitchen in Nevada City, a locally-owned business that creates fermented foods as well as hosting cooking classes and small events in their immaculate, certified kitchen. I love their old fashioned, German-style sauerkraut. It’s amazing. I’m also a tad obsessed with their Carrapeño — it’s fantastic on Southeast Asian sandwiches.

Fermented foods really became a big part of my diet after I sat down and chatted with Tim Van Wagner and Joe Meade, two of the three people involved with In The Kitchen’s food line.

Celebrating the cycle of produce, from farm to plate, was the inspiration behind In The Kitchen’s fermented line of foods.

Joe Meade, Wendy Van Wagner, and Wendy’s brother Tim Van Wagner, banded together to create healthy, fermented foods including sauerkraut, Kimchi, dill pickles, and more.

“You grow all of this beautiful food, and then how do you preserve that?” wondered Meade. “Can we make a product for this community that was grown here, made here?”

They did research, planned plots on the farm specifically for cabbage, sourced regional jars and labels, designed the labels, and acquired permits. After the long administrative process was completed, they began selling the product in June, 2010.

“From the start, we weren’t doing this to make money – it’s about advocacy and awareness,” explained Meade. “It’s about the local food movement. Someone had to take the risk, and we feel really blessed that it was us.”

They are really proud that they are able to pay the farmers close to market value for produce. There’s security in that guaranteed sale as well as being assured that they’re getting paid the same as they would if they were selling at a farmers market.

Five percent of the money made goes back to Living Lands Agrarian Network – the group of which Van Wagner is a part. What enables them to do so much is that they have access to both produce as well as a certified kitchen. When they’re not creating fermented foods, In The Kitchen is used for cooking classes and events.

“If we didn’t have the production facility, we probably wouldn’t be able to do it,” explained Meade.

And they find it fun – even when confronted by a mountain of cabbage after a work day, they still enjoy the process. It’s a family project that’s made easier because of the close relationships they have with one another.

“It’s fulfilling,” said Tim Van Wagner.

“It’s fun,” added Meade.

Making a healthy product for the community doesn’t hurt either. Meade and Van Wagner explained that every culture has a fermented food – sauerkraut, kefirs, many fermented drinks, yogurt, etc.

“The pH that is generated is a pretty powerful preservative,” said Meade.

“The bacteria that spoil food can’t exist in that environment,” said Van Wagner.

He explained that our digestion is dependent upon certain bacteria. The lactobacilli that is found in fermented foods helps to break down nutrients for absorption.

“There is really something for me that has a real balance affect … you can literally feel it in your body,” explained Meade.

“It definitely strengthens your immune system,” added Van Wagner.

Currently, In The Kitchen produces two sauerkrauts, an original and a German style with juniper berries and caraway; dill pickles; Kimchi made of daikon radish, Napa cabbage, ginger, and red jalapeños; and their signature creation developed by Tim Van Wagner, Carrapeño, a fermented hot relish made of carrots supplied by Leo Chapman, jalapeños, and sea salt.

They said the Carrapeño was the perfect complement to any number of dishes because of the heat and intensity of the jalapeño, the sweetness and earthiness of the carrots, and the tartness from the lacto fermentation. Meade is even using the brine in recipes in which you’d traditionally use ingredients like apple cider vinegar.

In The Kitchen’s fermented foods can be found at natural food stores in the Grass Valley area including BriarPatch Co-op, Natural Selection, California Organics, Natural Valley, and Mother Truckers.

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