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]