School cooking, gardening programs in peril

After school program, washing off the freshly picked asparagus
Washing off freshly picked asparagus at an after-school program at Willard Middle School’s edible garden April 13. Photo: Kaia Diringer

Berkeley schools’ nationally recognized cooking and gardening programs are about to lose funding – once again. But, unlike last year, no last-minute reprieve of federal funds is expected.

Schools representatives met with about 120 parents last Thursday night at Longfellow Middle School to explain why the programs are set to lose $1.9 million of U.S. Department of Agriculture funds, and what potential solutions are being developed.

Every public school in Berkeley — from pre-school to high school — currently has either a cooking program or an edible garden, with 10 schools having both. A series of videos shown at Thursday’s meeting — kindergarteners working with knives and graters, kids watering in the garden and stuffing their mouths with greens — shows just what is at stake.

Lincoln and student
Staffer Lincoln and student in the Willard Middle School edible garden on April 13. Photo: Kaia Diringer

Fourteen of 19 schools’ programs have gotten federal USDA funding for the past 12 years. Four of the other schools that haven’t qualified for the federal funds (because the money is channeled towards low-income communities) have supported their gardens through PTA funds and other donations. King Middle School’s garden is paid for by The Edible Schoolyard Project, founded by Chez Panisse owner Alice Waters.


It is the federally funded programs that are losing their income, starting Oct. 1: Berkeley High School, Berkeley Technology Academy, Longfellow and Willard middle schools, and the following elementary schools – Emerson, John Muir, LeConte, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Thousand Oaks and Washington. Also Hopkins, Franklin and King Preschools — are on the list.

The government guidelines changed in 2010 with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Now, the money will be spread out more equitably among the states. Before, Alameda County received more than its fair share, said those involved. To make matters worse, the reduced funding can no longer go directly to schools; it will be given to local health departments.

Willard Garden 10/13, Photo:Kaia Diringer
Students at work in the Willard Middle School edible garden on April 13. Photo: Kaia Diringer

Martin Bourque, director of Berkeley’s Ecology Center, summed it up for the parents’ meeting: “The funding is getting moved for reasons beyond our local control,” he said. “We’re on our own now.”

The benefits of the cooking and gardening programs are countless say teachers and parents. Kids learn to cook and eat healthy food. Lessons on science, math and health are taught in the garden and kitchen, and teachers bring garden concepts back into the classroom.

For more than a decade, parents and teachers have seen the truth in the title one of the videos shown on Thursday, “If they cook it they will eat it.” The educators point out that when the kids grow or cook a vegetable, they’re more likely to eat it in the lunchroom.

Then there are the indirect benefits. Malcolm X Principal Alex Hunt said he has taken upset kids for a walk in the garden, where it seems easier to straighten out problems.

Willard School’s garden educator Matt Tsang said that sometimes kids who haven’t done well academically succeed in the garden, and bring that attitude of success back to the classroom.  “The garden is another tool to reach kids,” he said.

Parent and fundraiser Josh Room is putting an upbeat spin on the news of expected cuts. “This is an exciting opportunity,” he told parents at the meeting. “We have the gift of a 15-year program. What can you do?  (to help raise funds)?”

Last year, when the loss of funding first loomed for three of the schools, parents created a group called the Berkeley Schools Gardening and Cooking Alliance. The alliance convinced the school board to allocate a year of bridge funding, which, ultimately, wasn’t needed when a one-year extension of federal funding came through.

But that effort set the stage for this year, when the federal supply line really will be cut.

Last November, the BUSD Superintendent created an advisory committee for the gardening and cooking program. The group is charged with looking at both long-term and short-term funding, not just for the 14 schools losing their federal funding, but also for the four other schools currently relying on PTA funds.

The advisory committee says long-term funding solutions include creating three to five-year public/private partnerships with businesses, and exploring local parcel taxes. Funding all 19 schools would require about $2 million per year.

Students cooking with the vegetables from the garden
Students cooking with the vegetables from the garden. Photo: Kaia Diringer

Those solutions will take several years to develop. So, for the short term, explained Melanie Parker, interim supervisor for the Gardening and Cooking Nutrition Program, the advisory group has outlined four levels of operation for the next few years. These range from fully funded at $2 million a year, to part-time staff at each school to simply keep the gardens alive, with very limited instruction, for a cost of about $250,000 a year.

The group is favoring an in-between solution, of cutting costs by 50%, to $1 million per year, and scaling back the programs to serve fewer grades, Parker said.

To raise money for short-term funding, the group is writing grants, establishing a major donor- and corporate-giving campaign, raising funds through school PTAs, and requesting matching funds from the school district.

“There are a lot of competing requests (at the district),” Parker said. “We’re hoping they will give.”

Community members who wish to ask the board to support the program can do so via email (boardofed@berkeley.net) or via the online petition.

Willard Garden 13/13, Photo:Kaia Diringer
Cooking up vegetables from the Willard Middle School edible garden. Photo: Kaia Diringer.

One fundraising effort will be a Dine Out event on May 30 for which organizers are approaching 100 Berkeley restaurants and food businesses, asking them to donate a percent of their profits for that day to the Cooking and Gardening Program. (See a list of participating restaurants here.)

Parents at the meeting also suggested the use of online micro-funding sites to raise money, such as Kickstarter.

The advisory committee isn’t just working on money solutions, it is also charged with creating a district-wide curriculum for the programs, so the schools would teach the cooking and gardening lessons in a similar fashion in each school. The new curriculum would link to state standards and to “2020 Vision,” Berkeley’s plan to end disparities in academic achievement.

“It’s a chance for the Berkeley community to take our 15-year investment to another level,” Parker said.

Anyone interested in donating to the program, volunteering, being part of the Dine Out event, or suggesting major donors should email berkeleyfundraiser@gmail.com.

Related:
Fight re-launched to save school nutrition programs [11.19.12]
School edible programs get reprieve from the Feds [06.14.12]
Berkeley district votes to fund at-risk edible programs [04.12.12]
Community seeks life support for school edible programs [03.30.12]
Berkeley school district cuts to tackle $3m deficit [03.28.12]
Berkeley school gardening, cooking face cuts [03.23.12]

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