Berkeley works to save schools’ edible programs

The Berkeley School Board looks likely to back a new plan aimed at sustaining the district’s highly regarded cooking and gardening program.

Teachers, parents and students from Berkeley Unified came out in force to the BUSD Board meeting on May 8 to show support for the district’s cooking and gardening program. Photo: Tracey Taylor

The Berkeley Unified School Board on Wednesday night made it plain it will do what it can to ensure Berkeley schools’ nationally recognized cooking and gardening program survives. The program faces federal funding cuts worth $1.9 million annually.

While a final decision and a vote on a budgeting model will likely come at the BUSD Board’s next meeting on May 22, the board members gave their tacit approval to a rescue package proposed by a superintendent’s advisory committee set up six months ago. The committee was tasked with identifying funding options, both short- and long-term, through donor and corporate giving campaigns, as well as public-private partnerships.

The committee crafted four potential levels of operation for the next few years. These range from a fully funded district-wide program at $2 million a year to part-time staff at each school simply keeping the gardens alive, with very limited instruction, at a cost of about $250,000 a year.

[Read the Superintendent’s Advisory Committee’s full report.]

The committee opted for a middle-ground solution and proposed that BUSD commit $300,000 a year for two years, and that $700,000 would be found through fundraising. This so-called “tier 2” scenario would entail a 50% cut in program costs, worth $1.04 million a year. Staff hours would be reduced — currently 30 staffers work on the edible gardening program — and fewer students would be able to take the outdoor classes.

“There is a very strong consensus to make it work,” Board member Judy Appel said on Thursday, speaking of the committee’s proposal. At the board meeting, directors discussed potential budgeting options and ways to use the money, but agreed in principle to allocate $600,000 to support the district-wide program over two years.

Board member Karen Hemphill questioned a proposed $50,000 annual payment for a fundraising consultant, and board member Josh Daniels suggested a model whereby the board would underwrite funding and then “pay itself back” when funds were raised through other means.

“The question now is the best way to leverage the money,” Appel said. “We have different ideas on how to do that. We will refine the budget.”

Zev Marx-Kahn, chair of Willard’s student cooking and gardening committee, spoke to the BUSD Board on May 8 in support of the district’s edible gardening programs. Photo: Tracey Taylor

A big crowd, comprising teachers, parents and students, turned out to Old City Hall to voice their support for the cooking and gardening program. Two other hot issues that brought people to rally outside the building and to the meeting — ongoing teacher contract negotiations, and a plan to put pre-used portable classrooms into Washington Elementary School — resulted in fire marshalls having to move many people out of the council chamber.

A 6th grader from Willard Middle School was among many impassioned public speakers on the edible gardens issue. Zev Marx-Kahn, chair of Willard’s student cooking and gardening committee, said it would be “a national embarrassment” to cut the Berkeley schools’ cooking and gardening programs. He said the classes were both physically and mentally engaging and had significant value for special ed students. He added that if the $330 cost per student per year for the programs was not spent, it would  “come back to bite us later” in the form of illness and junk food consumption.

Fourteen of 19 school 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: 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. Hopkins, Franklin, and King Preschools are also on the list.

The advisory committee considered not just for the 14 schools losing their federal funding, but also for the four other schools currently relying on PTA funds.

Critical to the committee’s proposals is finding a way to implement the cooking and gardening program at a district-wide level and to integrate it into Common Core State Standards, as well as Berkeley’s 2020 Vision initiative which aims to close the achievement gap. Both these measures will, they argue, make the program more sustainable long term.

Meanwhile, fundraising efforts are ongoing. The Berkeley Schools Gardening and Cooking Alliance is coordinating parent-led efforts, and local restaurants are pitching in with a Dine Out event on May 30 at which numeous Berkeley restaurants and food businesses will donate a percent of their profits for that day to the edible gardening programs. Visit Berkeley Dine Out more information.

Berkeley schools’ cooking, gardening programs in peril [04.16.13]
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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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside. Email: