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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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...