C&G photo
Supporters of the BUSD cooking and gardening program speak out at the March 12 BUSD Board meeting. Photo: Mary Flaherty

UPDATE, March 27: As expected, the Berkeley Unified School Board last night voted to commit $485,000 for the coming year to its gardening program, under the terms outlined it the proposal that called for gardening classes for pre-kindergarten through grade 7. [See the full proposal on the BUSD Board meeting agenda packet, starting on page 54.] Commenting on the move, Martin Bourque, executive director of the Ecology Center, said Berkeley was showing leadership in finding money from its budget for the pioneering program after losing nearly $2 million in federal funding. “Who else is stepping up like that on their own dime?” he said. “Berkeley is leading the way.”

ORIGINAL STORY: For the past few months the Berkeley school district has been struggling along with funding for its beloved cooking and gardening program. After some back-and-forth on proposals this winter, the board is now expected to vote March 26 to approve very reduced funding for gardening classes only in the 2014-15 school year.

Supporters – teachers, students and parents – pleaded with the school board at its March 12 meeting not to make further cuts to the cooking and gardening classes, which lost an annual $1.9 million in federal funding last fall. The program is already operating on less than half its former budget this year – about $850,000 — with bridge funds. Next year’s budget would be under $500,000.

“This has been a very difficult process for all of us,” Superintendent Donald Evans said. “This is a nationally recognized program. But that was when we had $2 million. We can no longer retain that type of program.”

The cuts affect cooking and gardening classes at every school in the district, except King Middle School, where the garden is operated under separate funding by the non-profit Edible Schoolyard Project, founded by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse

During their long discussion, the board members appeared to agree that the current BUSD program needs to eliminate its cooking classes for now and offer limited gardening classes. The latest proposal called for gardening classes for pre-kindergarten through grade 7 (eliminating grades 8-12). However, board members said they’d also like to fund the garden at Berkeley Technical Academy (which is shared by the Independent Study students), and that will be added to the proposal the board is expected to pass Wednesday, March 26.

But even at a reduced cost of $485,000 for the coming year, with only $178,000 requested in new funding, the board members were very concerned about whether the budget could accommodate the outlay.

“I’m struggling with this,” board member Karen Hemphill said. “We’re having a lot of things come to the board, piecemeal, that are all a priority, that all have their supporters.  Nobody here doesn’t love this program.”

The board will be committing to funding only one year right now. Board members recognized that a longer term financial commitment is probably better for attracting major donors. However, with changes in school funding this coming year (the new Local Control Funding Formula from the state), the district is still sorting out priorities for any new monies it gets.

Board members discussed allowing individual PTAs to raise funds supporting cooking classes in their own schools. Hemphill was initially opposed, saying it would create inequalities between the schools. But by the end of the discussion, the board members seemed to agree that if a principal signed off, they were fine with PTA-funded cooking classes.

Another possibility for the future is involvement from the Edible Schoolyard Project which has offered to help run BUSD’s middle school cooking and gardening program once a blueprint for sustainability is in place.

Board president Josh Daniels said he is hoping that a proposed city tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (not just soda) for November’s election, will help fund the cooking and gardening program.  The tax — which the City Council has not yet decided to put on the ballot — would bring in an estimated $1.5 million a year, say supporters. That’s less than the $2 million cost of the full cooking and gardening program, and it’s unlikely all the proceeds from the tax would go to the program. A further hurdle is that any funding for the cooking and gardening program would have to be re-approved annually by the city council, if, as expected, the tax is a general tax (which would only require a 50% vote to pass). A special tax, which would segregate the funds for specific uses, requires a two-thirds vote to pass.

Starting March 26 the board moves its meeting location to 2020 Bonar St. Meetings will no longer take place at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way. The meeting starts at 7:30 p.m.

Cooking cuts loom in Berkeley’s edible program (1.29.14)
Berkeley tasting night raises funds for school edible program (11.14.13)
Berkeley schools’ edible programs face huge challenges (11.11.13)
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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Mary Flaherty is a freelance reporter who has lived in the Berkeley area for since 1994. She earned a masters in journalism from UC Berkeley, and has reported for several local papers and copyedited for...