Berkeley schools’ edible program faces challenges

A student harvests vegetables in the garden at Willard Middle School in April. Photo: Kaia Diringer

A student harvests vegetables in the garden at Berkeley’s Willard Middle School in April. Photo: Kaia Diringer

Berkeley’s lauded garden and cooking program, which has helped students learn to plant radishes and cook kale for the past 14 years, was struck a severe blow in October when it lost the majority of its $1.9 million in federal funding. The program in 19 schools has cobbled together a $700,000 budget for this year through a one-time federal grant, funds from the Berkeley Unified School District, and loans and donations. But the program needs to develop new sources of revenue.

The school district recently hired Jezra Thompson to oversee the Gardening and Cooking Program, and one of her first tasks is to generate excitement about a year-long fundraising push which begins Tues. Nov 12 at A Taste of North Berkeley. From 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m, more than 20 stores and restaurants in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto will offer food and craft samples. Tickets cost $30 and all the proceeds will go to the BUSD Gardening and Cooking Program.

In advance of the event, Berkeleyside interviewed  Thompson about the gardening and cooking program and the challenges it faces.


Jezra Thompson: newly appointed director of the BUSD Gardening and Cooking Program

You have been on board for about a month. What is your background and what drew you to this position?

My background is in food system planning and program management. I have a master’s degree in urban planning with a focus on urban agriculture. I have worked on program development and food system policy that supports the connections between food and farming with a focus on those who struggle to make ends meet and provide enough food for their families. I am passionate about facilitating these connections and understand their integral value in the health and wellbeing of our communities, families, and children.

I was drawn to BUSD’s Gardening and Cooking Program, particularly, because I have a deep interest in connecting communities who grow the food with those who eat the food, often one and the same. This starts with our children, and the Gardening and Cooking Program has world-class educators that make unique connections with our youth in such meaningful ways. I am inspired by the potential outcomes when these connections are made successfully and I see the passion and commitment in our program staff, the schools, and our parent and community supporters. Furthermore, as a native Californian, I am thrilled to be back in my home state and in Berkeley, particularly. I have volunteered for several Berkeley gardens and organizations that teach our community how to cook healthy meals and connect with nature. I am committed to these efforts, topics, and place.

What do Berkeley students get from the Gardening and Cooking Program?

The Gardening and Cooking Program engages students in a different way, outside of the traditional classroom. It’s hands-on instruction for math, science, language, and art that offers a place for students to connect with their natural environment and inspires creativity. Equally as important, these school kitchens and gardens provide a safe space for students to connect with each other and their teachers in ways that may not be accessible to them in the classroom. Our program educators continually impress me with their ability to make these connections and provide the support and love emblematic of a healthy kitchen and garden and pertinent to academic success.

The cooking and gardening lessons are often a student’s first introduction to their food, environmental sciences, and language arts, starting in kindergarten. This is where they begin to grasp the importance of these connections and the knowledge of where their food comes from and why we need to eat healthfully. A healthy body and spirit fosters a healthy mind. To quote one of our gardening educations, Ben Goff, students learn how to practice wellness and “good will” towards ourselves and each other.

These connections are often hard to track quantitatively, but we have been aware of their influence on students’ lifestyles, health, academic success, and personal growth through qualitative narratives collected over the 12 plus years we have been educating Berkeley students. Our educators establish relationships with the students and have received several emails and phone calls after students have moved on to the next grade or graduated about how important their time in the kitchen and garden were to them. The effects are radial and exponential.


How is it different from the Edible Schoolyard program at King Middle School?

The Edible Schoolyard is an amazing program with a focus on one school. (But it is a separate program.) They engage in policy efforts to improve student’s experience in the cafeteria, as well as the classroom and schoolyard. They are a great support to our program and I look forward to working more with them in the future. They have a lot of resources and a steadfast way of operating and providing students with cooking and gardening education. The BUSD Gardening and Cooking Program is in all Berkeley schools, kindergarten to high school. We are a larger program with a broader student body reach. Given this expanse, we are often spread thin and operate with less time, resources, and financial stability. We are also not as widely known and I look forward to connecting with the community and talking more about our Program in ways that illuminate our depth and breadth.

What is financial position of the Gardening and Cooking program in Berkeley schools?What are your plans to restore the budget?

We’ve had a great problem in the past, which is continual funding from the government for the last 12 years through a California Nutrition Network grant. This has been a financial success, but one that has been too singular. Now that the government is no longer funding our program in the same way (we’ve received a one time grant this year from them for $100,000), we have to change the way we do business; we have to diversify. I’m charged with fundraising this year to support next year and the years to come, and at the same capacity and reach. This is a tall order, but we have a lot of community and parent support. In the meantime, we will be looking towards major donors and foundations for support in preparation for next year.

How has the loss of most of your funding impacted the program?

We’ve been charged with reaching every Berkeley student in every Berkeley school, but with about half of the financial support. We have more gardens and kitchens to maintain with fewer staff. We’re undergoing a re-visioning process and evaluating our current resources and reaching out to those that support the program or are interested in supporting the program. We’re at a point of opportunity here; we will streamline our methods of operating and finesse the way we do business, making sure we’re continuing to provide the students and their families with the best program that serves their needs and continues to provide them with a world class cooking and gardening education.

Willard Middle School garden.  PHoto: Kaia Diringer

Willard Middle School garden. Photo: Kaia Diringer

What can people in Berkeley do to help?

We have to troubleshoot through sustainable funding plans in the near future, where diversification and community is key. We currently have a piecemeal funding plan to get us through to the end of this school year and we’re working on strategizing for more sustainable funding sources in the years to come. However, currently, our financial outlook is dire.

A Taste of North Berkeley is our program’s kick off fundraising event for this year. We’ll be doing a lot more of these. It’s a way for our staff and program to engage the community and talk about our work with Berkeley students. It’s also a way for us to strengthen our existing relationships with Berkeley businesses, who have been enormously supportive of what we do. Berkeley is a tight community, a food-interested community, and a wellness focused community, where families and kids are foremost important. It’s a great place for us to be.

We’re very fortunate to have this kind of support and be within a community that values the interdisciplinary services we provide to their children. We now have to make sure that our story is heard and the message about our need is clear. We need the Berkeley community to rally in support of our program.

The Gardening and Cooking Program is at a tipping point and now is the time to seize the day. We’ll be calling on our community supporters to be our voices from the outside, support us by attending our events, and talk with their neighbors and PTAs about how we can all work together to plan for a sustainable program that Berkeley is known for throughout the world. ”

Learn more about Fall Taste of North BerkeleyPurchase tickets.

Portraits: Berkeley schools’ cooking and gardening program (05.29.13)
Berkeley schools gardening, cooking program in peril (o4.16.13)
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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  • aperson

    Why did well-off Berkeley, of all the cities in the nation, get a nearly $2 million porkbarrel handout to fund some dilettantish fantasy about “food justice” that has no proven effects whatsoever? Oh wait, that’s right — because Alice Waters hobnobs with the president and is a fundraiser for the Democratic Party. I grease your palm with tens of millions of donations from liberal millionaire hypocrites, and you repay the favor with a handout of almost $2 million in taxpayer funds, while countless school districts across the country are impoverished. Nice.

    Thank god this little charade of corruption came to an end. If racist Berkeley residents want to teach farmworkers’ kids and sharecroppers’ grandkids how to revert back to manual field labor, then let them hold their own fundraisers as they are now doing. Good.

  • EBGuy

    What are you talking about? Select Berkeley schools received SNAP-Ed funding because over 50% of the students were socioeconomically disadvantaged (eligible for free/reduced lunches). As Berkeley demographics change, fewer schools meet the 50% threshold. In addition, SNAP-Ed funds are now distributed in a different manner and go through Health Depts.
    I’m pretty sure this program was from the Bush era — but feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

  • probusybody

    My first thought is ” Who ARE YOU!??” “Where are you from?!!?” And then I realized that we are so fragmented in our various ways of getting our information and developing our own opinions that it really is possible that someone who lives in Berkeley has opinions that I would attribute to the Tea Party. I’ve always wanted to sit down with someone with these opinions, who would call Alice Waters liberal millionaire a hypocrite. Maybe you are right; that there are more deserving school districts trying to teach for children how to read and count. Then again the people who pay taxes in Berkeley, for the school system that we have, deserve their moneys worth as well. Professors at the University may not make a lot of money, but they definitely want their children properly educated. Would that all the children in our country could get the kind of education that Berkeley aspires to give our own children. Amen.

  • Just Wondering

    “well-off Berkeley” schools are attended by “farmworkers’ kids and sharecroppers’ grandkids”?

    Really? Which is it?

    “to revert back to manual field labor…”

    Perhaps if they get good enough at tending a kitchen garden, they will be qualified to apply for a job working “manual field labor” at the White House Vegetable Garden commissioned by someone whom you presumably consider to be a “sharecroppers’ grandkid.”

  • Berkeleyborn123

    The garden program is a good learning opportunity, source of fresh food, and has provided a unique school experience for students. For those who do the numbers, probably the greatest lesson we can teach the students is just how bad the economics of small scale farming really are, particularly in urban areas where land is expensive, unless you own the land outright and have significant control over where your product is sold-i.e. you are selling directly to your end users/restaurants with no “middle persons”. This lesson is valuable for any small business venture, especially for those getting wide eyed about investing real money and time in agriculturally based business ventures as adults. The lesson in no way undercuts teaching the value of eating healthy, locally produced food, and will maybe foster some innovation on how to get over these issues at scale…I’m sure its being taught already, but going out for donations, while great, is not how to run a small business sustainably over time.

  • Truth Sayer

    I disagree with most of your comments, as gardening has been a recreational hobby for many people for years, And it has been an educational tool to teach obese American youth the benefits of eating fresh homegrown vegetables as an alternative to junk food. But at such a high cost is beyond reasoning or comprehension.

  • Lamar

    The program has been in existence for 14 years not 12.

  • I’m jes’ sayin’

    The link is to a blurb for this guy’s book. The reference to Waters says, “Cutting right to the bone, Bourdain sets his
    sights on some of the biggest names in the foodie world, including…the revered Alice Waters, whom he treats with
    unapologetic frankness…”

    This statement says nothing specific about Waters and cannot possibly support your outlandish claim that, “Alice Waters is a liberal millionaire hypocrite, from a factual point of view.”

    You will have to go a long way to prove Ms. Waters a hypocrite. And if you somehow manage to do so, so what, who cares, big deal.

    PS Somehow, you failed to mentioned that we are paying to educate students from Berkeley.

  • I will correct that. Thanks

  • In the editing process, the first question Berkeleyside posed to Thompson got dropped, which may have led to your confusion. I have added it back in. I hope that helps.

  • bgal4

    From the outset the food/garden program relied heavily on large federal grants and when fund didn’t cover costs the program borrowed from the BUSD general fund. The program could have designed with a financial sustainable approach integrated into the volunteer cooking and gardening programs many schools enjoyed for years. The decision making was largely directed by the consulting industry associated with the eco-literacy movement.

  • bgal4

    Is IDEO’s Vision Harming San Francisco’s School Lunch Program?

    similar funding and structural problems in SFSD lunch program

    I remind folks if BUSD closed BHS and provided lunch service a major source of funding would be generated.

  • Not sayin’ much.

    The link is to the listing for the book at the Berkeley Public Library so you can place a hold on it so you can read the chapter referenced in the comment.

  • Guest

    No thanks. We already have some of the highest taxes in the country. I’m not willing to take on even more parcel taxes to pay for programs at BUSD schools until they actually do something about the problem of enrollment fraud.

    Our city administrators are so incompetent that they asked for a $30 million bond for road repair before bothering to analyze the problem and when they did so they found out that they really need **$64 MILLION** to do the job. I have no faith in their ability to administer any additional funds, and am sure that any program they take charge of will end up costing twice as much for the city to do.

  • Mel Content

    I disagree with most of your comments, as gardening has been a recreational hobby for many people for years

    Does a “recreational hobby” for a small group of people need to be subsidized to the tune of $2 million by the feds? With this type of mentality, no wonder we can’t balance the federal budget.

  • guest

    The kids love the gardening programs and learning about nutrition. They actually teach kids how to cook and enjoy fresh healthy meals.

  • guest

    They are teaching a combination of plant biology, home economics and nutrition. The program pays for staff and material at 19 different schools.

  • BerkeleyDude

    Surely there has to be a clear way for the city to simply charge non-resident tuition to the families who want to send their children to Berkeley schools while not being residents within Berkeley.

    It seems that a fair solution is to be transparent about things:
    1) Admissions requirements (no kids who are falling behind) so only students who are performing well and would enhance the school experience for their peers are accepted.
    2) Strict behavior requirements for any out-of-Berkeley students — disruptive students, if there are any, need to be shown the door.
    3) Charge non-resident tuition for out-of-Berkeley students, ideally on the sliding-scale pay-us-eventually model whereby they will pay a lifetime extra tax of 1% of global household income (with no deductions) to Berkeley, while their parents pay an extra 5% of their household income (no deductions) to Berkeley while they are enrolled students.

    The above simple solution is fair, respects the nature of education as being for students who want to learn, and doesn’t stigmatize anyone. It also creates the right atmosphere for learning. Poor families with bright kids who love learning can do the right thing by paying 5% of income now (that’s one day out of every 4 work weeks) and if they can’t afford even that, to contribute 1 full day per month of labor in-kind directly to the school so they can hold their head up high as they pull their own weight.

  • probusybody

    Have you ever heard of the edible schoolyard? Alice Waters created this on her own. There are bargains in schools all over Berkeley thanks to her. Maybe Jamie Oliver text care of his community, Alice takes care of hers.

  • BerkeleyCitizen

    When I was growing up — many, many years ago — gardening and cooking classes were part of the curricula in elementary school and in the last year of high school, respectively. I can’t figure out why it would take $1.9 million in federal money as well as other sources of income to provide such classes in Berkeley schools.

  • Truth Sayer

    Please take notice that I too vehemently disagreed with the cost of the program. Frankly, it should not have approached $500,000, much less near 2 million. Other school districts have hired teaches with degrees in agriculture. They rotate between the schools throughout the school year (providing instruction), and visit the student’s home garden when applicable, or group gardens. It took only a few teaches per school system. The original concept came from the WWII Victory Garden which proved quite effective.

  • I’m jes’ sayin’

    No Kool-Aid for me. Thanks anyway.