Kids eat the fruits of their labor at Berkeley's Malcolm X Elementary School. Photo: Rivka Mason

Late last night, the Berkeley Unified School District School Board voted to authorize funding up to $350,000 for three elementary schools — Malcolm XRosa Parks, and Washington — that were in danger of losing their gardening and cooking programs for the next school year.

The move came as welcome news for all those involved in the programs and anyone who champions teaching children to eat, grow, and cook their greens.

“The Board showed a remarkable commitment to edible education by continuing to fund the garden and cooking programs at Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, and Washington next year,” said Leah Sokolofski, who supervises the program for the district. “The decision is dependent on the district receiving Network for a Healthy California funding. We are still waiting for more information to be released about the Network funding. The district’s current Network contract continues through September 30, 2012.”

Board member Leah Wilson made the motion and the final vote was 4-1, with the no vote cast by Josh Daniels, who wanted the Board to explore funding the programs at a scaled-down level, as a cost-saving measure, while still maintaining the core components of the program.

“I was also concerned that the decision would put the long-term health of the District’s meals program in jeopardy,” Daniels told Berkeleyside. “The $350,000 is being taken from funds that would go to our meals program [Meals for the Needy], potentially forcing the meals programs to use up to almost half of its reserves in 2012-13.” [Clarification: the funds will be taken from Meals for the Needy’s surplus budget.]

The cooking and gardening programs at the three schools, whose combined budgets are $372,000, were threatened because, under existing guidelines, they no longer qualify for federal monies as each of the schools has fewer than 50% of its students enrolled in the free and reduced-lunch program. BUSD school garden and cooking programs are funded through September 2012 through Network for a Healthy California, a state program that distributes federal monies to local school districts through a three-year grant. The network seeks to improve the health of low-income Californians through increased fruit and vegetable consumption and daily activity. [Clarification: BUSD is waiting to hear about the state’s allocations of federal funding for the next three years. It made the decision to find funds for the three at-risk schools on the assumption its guidelines regarding the free and reduced-lunch program percentage cut-offs remain unchanged.]

In addition to the three schools whose funding was in jeopardy, 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 under current guidelines.

Earlier, the School Board had proposed offering funding of $300,000 spread over two years, with $150,000 earmarked the first year for the three schools about to lose gardening and cooking programs in the 2012-2013 school year, and a further $50,000 to four BUSD elementary schools who currently do not have such programs at all. But a vocal group calling itself the Berkeley Schools Gardening and Cooking Alliance wrote to the board in advance of last night’s meeting to make a case for why such funding would be both insufficient and ineffective.

“We ask that the Board consider allocating as much as possible to help us bridge this gap so we can keep these long-established, fully-integrated, successful programs going uninterrupted in as close to their present forms as possible for 2012-2013,” the letter reads. “We are seeking bridge funds for this one year only. We understand that any funds from the Board would be a one-time expenditure from a reserve fund rather than on-going structural support. And we are committed to using the coming year to work with the District and the larger Berkeley community to develop long-term, sustainable funding strategies for a district-wide programmatic approach for all elementary and middle schools who want to participate in these programs.”

For now, the alliance — made up of parents and community members — are celebrating this temporary reprieve. “We are of course extremely grateful to the School Board for giving us this lifeline, and the time it provides us to better execute a plan to save the gardening and cooking programs long-term,” said Malcolm X parent Joshua Room.  “This will give us time to focus on corporate, community, individual donors and grants.” He added: “And we want to continue to work with the District over this next year, and in the years following, to protect these programs and to make similar programs available to all of the students in Berkeley.”

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

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]