Community seeks life support for school edible programs

The end of salad days for some BUSD students? Photo: Rivka Mason

This week, Berkeley parents and community members rallied to find ways to secure funds to save the gardening and cooking programs at three local elementary schools.

The programs at Malcolm XRosa Parks, and Washington, whose combined budgets are  $372,000, are threatened because, under existing guidelines, the schools no longer qualify for federal monies as they have fewer than 50% of their students enrolled in the free and reduced-lunch program.

At a meeting at Malcolm X on Monday night, about two dozen people representing the three schools and the South Berkeley community hashed out ideas to find money in the short-term — and discussed the bigger-picture concern of making these programs sustainable,  as well as available to all BUSD students over the long haul.

In addition to the three schools that stand to lose financial support, the schools that currently receive federal funds for gardening and cooking instruction include Emerson, John Muir, Le Conte, and Thousand OaksBerkeley Arts Magnet, Cragmont, Jefferson, and Oxford fail to meet the criteria for these monies.

Since the meeting, the group has started to spread the word about their struggle. Around 30 people showed up at Wednesday night’s BUSD Board Meeting, to express their concern to board members during public comment. Edible schoolyard researcher and Rosa Parks parent Sharon Danks reminded the board that people travel from around the world to learn about Berkeley’s acclaimed gardening and cooking programs.

“What you have here is of international significance,” said the author of Asphalt to Ecosystems, which references BUSD programs, including those at risk for funding cuts.

Education and health benefits

Malcolm X parent Claudia Polsky cited the educational importance of these programs, which are often touted for their health benefits. Polsky said she has witnessed first hand the “incredible value of experiential learning” for all children, especially those not engaged by conventional teaching methods, and stressed how this kind of instruction plays a key role in helping address the ongoing challenge of the so-called achievement gap. She urged the board to find bridging funds as “life support” for the programs.

Board President John Selawsky said the board is developing a proposal regarding the funding cuts that should be available for review prior to its April 11 board meeting.

Yesterday, the Berkeley School Gardening and Cooking Alliance launched a Facebook page to educate the community about what’s at stake for students — and to solicit donations for the next school year. Berkeley Public Education Foundation has agreed to serve as the alliance’s fiscal sponsor. (Find a donation link here and secure online donation form here. Donors can specify contributions are for the school gardening and cooking programs.)

Berkeley's school gardens have a reputation beyond the city's borders. Photo: Rivka Mason

At the Monday meeting the group bandied about options for raising money for the next academic year, mindful that there’s only 11 weeks before the end of school. Different parents took on the tasks of pursuing grant support, approaching local businesses, and seeking contributions from school alum and grandparents, among other efforts.

The notion of a Kickstarter campaign was discussed. (Last year, a Washington DC public school raised over $60,000 on Kickstarter to build a teaching kitchen for students.)

Alice Waters suggested in an interview with Berkeleyside last week that the crowdsourcing fundraising platform might be worth exploring, and noted that she was taken by a recent appeal by Bard College to fund a student garden program in upstate New York. “It just made me want to get out my credit card,” said Waters, who is featured on new billboards as part of a license plate campaign to support California Arts Council education programs.

Waters’ staffer Kyle Cornforth, director of the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, was on hand at Monday’s meeting to show support and share resources with the new three-school alliance. Cornforth, who explained that the Edible Schoolyard Project was not a grant-making entity, also noted that a number of schools in the district established gardening programs long before the Edible Schoolyard broke ground.

Meanwhile, Berkeleyside contacted the California Department of Public Health, the agency that oversees Network for a Healthy California — the state body that currently distributes federal monies to local school districts for these programs — for clarity on potential funding cuts.

Decisions at federal level

While new guidelines surrounding these programs are expected by tomorrow, March 31, it’s not uncommon for the release of federal regulations to be delayed. The department is unaware of any proposals to change the eligibility requirements, but those decisions are made at the federal level, said Linda Rudolph, deputy director  of the California Department of Public Health, who leads the Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. That said, the language in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act regarding the target requirements (50%) for school sites remains the same, added Rudolph.

Malcolm X school, for instance, falls short of that requirement with 46% of its student body on free or reduced lunch. But that percentage equates to fewer than 20 students. And the actual number of families meeting the criteria hasn’t dropped but has just become a smaller percentage of the student population.

“It seems unfair and arbitrary that a small shift in our demographics should result in the total loss of funding for these innovative programs that are so integral to the curriculum and student health,” said Joshua Room, PTA secretary for the school.

“At a time when the nation is adopting gardening and cooking programs in the schools,” he added, “it would be cruelly ironic for Berkeley, one of the birthplaces of this movement, to lose its well-established model programs.”

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Berkeley school district cuts to tackle $3m deficit [03.28.12]
Berkeley school gardening, cooking face cuts [03.23.12]
48 Berkeley teachers get preliminary layoff notices
A planner who favors edible, eco education — and risks [03.25.11]
Research verifies importance of school food program [09.23.10]
Berkeley Bites: Kyle Cornforth [04.16.10]

Print Friendly
Tagged , , , , , , , , ,
Please keep our community civil. Comments should remain on topic and be respectful.
Read our full comments policy »
  • EBGuy

    A couple of things to chew on (stats from ed-data):

    Free/ reduced lunch eligibility in BUSD has hovered around 40% since
    2004-5.  There was a marked increase in the 2010-11 school year to
    43.6%.  I’m assuming this jump was due to increased ‘recruitment
    efforts’ (which, I’ve noticed as well at our below 50% threshold

    A more even distribution of socioeconomically challenged students
    indicates that the lottery system is achieving its goals.  Additionally, there may be other factors at play.  The ‘north zone bulge’
    means the Malcolm X is shared with the central zone (as BAM is shared
    between north and central zones).  Proactive families (that is, those
    who specify lottery preferences) who live near Malcolm X in the central
    zone are likely to send their children there.

  • Andrew

    Is there a foundation or foundations out there willing to support these programs?  I’d love to hear if there any efforts towards that end and I’d help support them.

  • Anonymous

     You mean other than BESP taxes that are supposed to be supporting programs like this?

  • Andrew

     Well, I no longer assume taxes pay for anything these days.

  • The Sharkey

    It’s a shame that the funding for these programs is tied to the school lunch system the way they are. Seems to me like gardening and cooking programs are of use to everyone, whether they qualify for free/reduced priced lunches or not.

  • concerned citizen

    Alice Waters suggested in an interview with Berkeleyside last week that the crowdsourcing fundraising platform might be worth exploring, (Quote from article)

    Take a look. Here is a link to “food”.  Kickstarter would be a plus whether or not funding comes through.

  • concerned citizen

    Here is another crowdsourcing site.

  • Guest

    Taxes pretty much just cover salaries, benefits and pensions most of which are legally binding obligations on tax payers in perpetuity.  If tax receipts fall in a down economy or if pension investments lose principle in a bear market, then most government services and programs have to be cut or scaled back to maintain the excessive salary and pension obligations. 

    If top BUSD administrators who cost the tax payers well north of $200,000 per year when you factor in all of their benefits were to accept as little as a 3% pay annual total compensation pay cut, then we could easily fund this program and many others which are potentially  on the chopping block without raising taxes or fundraising further.

    Remember school district spending policies exist to serve the self-interest and benefit of the following groups in roughly this order of priority:

    1.  Administrators
    2.  Teachers
    3.  Other school district employees
    4.  Underprivileged students
    5.  Privileged Students
    6.  Parents
    7.  Other tax payers

  • Anonymous

    The various measures that we’ve passed over the years have always been sold as a way to provide nice things for all students that in a sane country would just normal parts of public education but that state and federal government won’t pay for. At least that’s why I’ve always voted for them. Now that I have kids in the district and she how bad it is for kids who are trying their hardest to succeed I never would have voted that way and just gone the private route.

  • Cammy

    If  Alice Waters had a celebrity fundraiser once a year for the program that would help. It can be held at Chez Panisse, and she can invite celebrity chefs or famous musicians/entertains in the Bay Area – people like Rita Moreno,  Michael Pollan, Robert Reich, and Mollie Katzen…. 

  • Cammy

    You’re right.

  • EBGuy

    The plot thickens.  Free/reduced lunch students make up 50.8% of the student body at the middle school level.

  • EBGuy

     By my (albeit rough) calculations, free/reduced lunch students make up 49.95% of the elementary school student body (circa 2010-11).   The calculations may be off slightly as I took district wide numbers and subtracted HS and middle school numbers to arrive at the elementary school figure.  In theory, every elementary school (except Jefferson) could have a federally subsidized gardening program.

  • EBGuy

    Here’s my suggestion: a ‘draft day’ (or is that free agency?) after the Reduced/Free Lunch Forms have been filled out.  There are usually socioeconomically challenged kids being bussed up into the hills who would rather go to their local school and nonsocioeconomically challenged kids being bussed into the flats who would rather go to their local school.  These preferences are indicated on the lottery forms.  Swap students until you hit the 50% threshold to maintain support for the gardening programs.  While somewhat disruptive, everyone is happy as parents end up getting their preferred choice.

  • bgal4

    Long before ALICE and the entire garden industry was established LeConte elementary school  funded a part-time garden teacher and parents volunteered to teach the weekly cooking classes. 

  • Bruce Love

    The shortfall this year is only $372,000.   The availability of and conditions on that same money in future years is very uncertain, no matter what BUSD does.   Your idea would cost something to implement and to execute — such as for legal help to get real clear as to how this doesn’t wind up creating segregation.  Not sure it’s worth it.

    I think there’s a bigger, underlying cultural problem at BUSD.   From my perspective, it’s a rich district that thinks like a poor district.  This bit about relying on free or reduced lunch funding for edible schoolyard stuff  is “thinking like a poor district”.[*]

    Here’s what I mean:

    In a poor district there’s never enough money to really do well all the things you’d like to do.   So poor districts get really creative at stretching budgets and slushing funds around a bit and “getting by”.   A good (virtuous) poor district winds up doing more than you might think their budget allowed — and the budget is held together with spit and bailing wire.

    A rich district can go one of two ways (to over-simplify a bit):

    1) It can build up a frugal but solid core of programs and blow the rest on easily sacrificed niceties.
    2) It can try to build up an even larger set of long-term programs, stretching the budget in contorted ways just like a poor district has to do.

    When a rich district does (2) it isn’t virtuous like a poor district contorting its budget, its profligate.  BUSD as a whole seems more like (2) than (1) to me (cough “small schools” cough).

    [*] BUSD relying on free or reduced lunch funding for edible schoolyard stuff is also, apparently, resulting in the diversion of federal assistance program money for the benefit of wealthy students.

  • Bruce Love

    If a school receives additional aid because it has a large number of students who qualify for free or reduced lunches, then is not the purpose of that aid to specifically benefit those students?   Since the garden programs do not specifically benefit those students, how was that ever a legitimate way to fund those programs?

  • EBGuy

    Strongly disagree.  Ditto for your other comments above.  This is the mission for the state agency that distributes the federal funds:
    Network for a Healthy California

    The Network represents a statewide movement of local, state
    and national partners collectively working toward improving the health
    status of low-income Californians through increased fruit and vegetable
    consumption and daily physical activity.  Multiple venues are used to
    facilitate behavior change in the homes, schools, worksites, and
    communities of low-income Californians to create environments that
    support fruit and vegetable consumption and physical activity.

    At any rate, you’re getting your wish.  Parents will have to muster their social capital to ensure these programs are funded — for the benefit of everyone.

  • Bruce Love

    The “about” page for the Network also says (emphasis added):

    USDA requires that Network programs and funding be targeted only to
    SNAP recipients and those with similar low incomes
    , and with formal
    waiver approval, other households with income at or below 185% of the
    Federal Poverty Level in approved census tract locations and other
    local sites.

  • EBGuy

    Chill out Bruce.  Directly from the Federal Guidelines:
    This audience may be served when it is not possible or practical to separate out Program eligibles and/or identify Program eligibility…  One of the examples given is (surprise!): Children in schools where at least 50% of children receive free and reduced priced meals.  Please stop trying to take fresh vegetables away from our kids.

  • Bruce Love

    EBGuy, I’m not “trying to take fresh vegetables away from our kids”.  That’s ridiculous.

    I am suggesting that the proximate cause of this funding crisis is a choice by BUSD to use those particular funds inappropriately.   The funding supply from that direction is volatile compared to the needs of the gardening program and because Berkeley is right on that demographic edge.   You could say that that’s a flaw in the program design at the federal level or that it’s a flaw in the program implementation at BUSD level.  I’m pointing out a reason to think that BUSD misimplemented the program and tried to use it for something for which it wasn’t designed and for which purpose the funding program shouldn’t be expected to function well.   It’s a symptom of, as I said in that other post, BUSD “thinking like a poor district” — contorting funding streams rather than concentrating on fundamentals.