Soda tax brings needed cash to gardening program

BUSD's cooking and gardening program has been in need of financial support since federal funding was slashed in 2013. Photo: Kaia Diringer
BUSD’s cooking and gardening program has been in need of financial support since federal funding was slashed in 2013. Photo: Kaia Diringer

The Berkeley Unified School District’s beleaguered cooking and gardening program will see a welcome injection of funds as a result of revenues accrued from Measure D, the so-called soda tax, approved by city residents last November.

On Thursday, June 4, a panel appointed to allocate taxes collected from the sugar-sweetened beverage tax recommended $250,000 be advanced to the cooking and gardening program.

It was announced May 18 that the soda tax had raised $116,000 in its first month of operation.

The Berkeley City Council is set to vote to approve the panel’s recommendation by June 30, while the Berkeley School Board is slated to finalize its budget June 10 with the knowledge that the funding is essentially secured.


The panel decision “was pretty much unanimous — this was something that definitely needed to happen,” panel Chairwoman Jennifer Brown said at the meeting, which was hosted by MomsRising.org and the Ecology Center.

In a discussion and Q&A moderated by Ecology Center Executive Director Martin Bourque, experts and members of the community discussed the outcomes of the soda tax revenues and ideas for how the $250,000 will be allocated within the gardening program.

“I’m thrilled to see this working,” Bourque told Berkeleyside. “This was envisioned a long time ago — to see it actually happening now is amazing.”

The Ecology Center hosted a community meeting regarding the allocation of soda tax revenue to the BUSD school cooking and gardening program. Pictured are (from left) program supervisor Jezra Thompson, soda tax panel of experts chair Jennifer Brown, Councilwoman Linda Maio, and Ecology Center executive director Martin Bourque. Photo: Emily Dugdale.
Last week’s meeting on the allocation of soda tax revenue to the BUSD cooking and gardening program included (l to r) program supervisor Jezra Thompson, soda tax panel Chair Jennifer Brown, Councilwoman Linda Maio and Ecology Center chief Martin Bourque. Photo: Emily Dugdale

BUSD cooking and gardening program supervisor Jezra Thompson echoed Bourque’s enthusiasm, but also emphasized that there is still a long road ahead. “I’ve been excited about this for a while, but I don’t want to get my hopes up too much,” she told Berkeleyside, adding that total funding so far for the 2015-16 program tops $600,000, but “that’s not enough.”

However, she added: “When the papers are signed, I’ll be celebrating with everyone else who’s supported us.”

BUSD gardening program coping with 2013 funding cuts

The gardening program operates as part of the 2020 Vision for Berkeley Children and Youth, and offers students from preschool to seventh grade hands-on instruction in core subjects such as science, environment and nutrition.

“We teach students that taking care of the land and their body and understanding the importance of healthy food and the intricacies of a food system allows for the development of multiple intelligences and builds healthy practices,” according to a district report about the program’s efforts last fall.

The nationally recognized program took a blow in 2013, when it lost a $1.9 million federal grant from the California Nutrition Network.

“We used to have gardening, we had cooking, we had a really large budget to provide this to students once a week,” Thompson said at last week’s community meeting. “We had to ask hard questions, such as what do we do now that we’ve lost all this money? Where do we make the cuts, now that we’re totally broke?”

The program underwent several structural changes, including the elimination of most of the cooking part of the program, staffing cuts, two annual program assessments, changes to how classroom academics related to garden time and the launch of co-teaching with full classes.

There are currently 10 part-time garden instructors who work side-by-side with teachers for 10-27 hours a week using the gardening period as a bridge to current classroom projects and curriculum. The program reaches 5,811 students across 17 schools, according to the district, with lessons that are generally 45 minutes long. Instruction is provided every other week with an average of two lessons per month for each class grade.

The program has largely been deemed a success by both teachers and students. In the fall 2014 report, the district wrote that “students are excited to get out into the garden and take great pride in caring for the garden.”

Read more about BUSD’s gardening and cooking program.

At a school board meeting April 22, a representative for the gardening program outlined the status quo in light of pending cuts proposed by the district earlier in the year.

Last year’s total budget for the program was $677,243, which included a one-time contribution of $100,000 from the city of Berkeley and $485,000 from the school district. Salary and benefits for gardening instructors totaled $436,444, with program administration costing $145,619.

The 2014-15 school year saw $4,715 raised through grants and $17,672 from fundraising events, many organized by parents. Total fundraising during the 2013-14 school year was $51,000. Yet, as it headed into the 2015-16 school year, supporters of the program were unsure about more funding until the council recommended that $250,000 of forward funding be allocated to school gardens.

Community meeting addresses questions, concerns about soda tax allocation

Thursday’s community meeting offered Berkeley residents a chance to ask questions and give input to a panel of speakers that included Thompson, City Councilwoman Linda Maio, and soda tax panel Chairwoman Jennifer Brown.

The small room filled quickly with a mix of interested community members and health activists, including soda tax panel members Joy Moore and Poki Namkung.

Jezra Thompson speaks at Thursday's community meeting at the Ecology Center. Photo: Emily Dugdale
BUSD cooking and gardening program supervisor Jezra Thompson speaking at a community meeting June 4. Photo: Emily Dugdale

Brown and Thompson made clear that planning for the allocation of funding is in the initial stages, and nothing is decided yet.

“We have a lot of work to do,” said Brown.

Brown and Thompson said bringing back cooking instruction would be a priority for program funding, though first they hope to “bring up the baseline” of the gardening program.

The elimination of cooking instruction was “a real loss for the program,” Thompson said. “It would be wonderful to bring back cooking opportunities.”

The funding will also help strengthen the garden-based learning program, allowing for 4-5 additional hours of instruction per week.

Thompson also noted that School Board Director Josh Daniels has been working with the soda tax panel to help ensure the health and wellbeing of the most at-need student populations are being supported.

Health prevention education, such as in the area of diabetes, is also a key topic of expansion for the gardening program, according to Thompson.

Bourque expanded on the idea of improving the overall nutritional budget in the future.

“We’ve really put a lot of attention on how we’re going to get through the cooking and gardening program crisis,” he said. “Maybe now is the time to think about the school nutrition services and how we can help that along.”

Related:
Berkeley’s new soda tax panel begins its work (05.20.15)
Soda tax raises $116,00o of revenue in first month (05.18.25)
Berkeley seeks experts for ‘soda tax’ advisory panel (01.06.15)
Cooking cuts loom at school’s edible program (01.29.14)
Berkeley’s school’s edible program faces challenges (11.11.13)

Emily Dugdale, a graduate of Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, is a summer intern at Berkeleyside.

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