Students in Willard Middle School’s Growing Leaders gardening, cooking and business program prepare empanadas. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

By late morning on a recent Thursday, a group of Berkeley middle school students had chopped up a 50-pound pile of onions.

They had sliced through bags of mushrooms, rinsed large heads of romaine lettuce and rolled out empanada dough into little saucers that were chilling in industrial refrigerators.

There was still plenty of work to do. In just a number of hours, dozens of hungry people would arrive, expecting dinner.

The Growing Leaders class at Willard Middle School performs this complex operation every two weeks, cooking about 300 meals, often with produce they’ve grown themselves, and packaging them up for customers who’ve ordered online ahead of time.

“We sell out,” said teacher Matt Tsang. “It’s a nice problem to have.”

Tsang developed the elective, now in its fourth year, when federal funding for gardening and cooking programs in BUSD and other districts was slashed in 2012. The cuts put Willard’s offerings in peril, but Tsang, who has worked for the district since 1997, knew they shouldn’t pack up their shovels and hoes at the first sign of a dry season. He sat down with his colleagues and thought about what they could cultivate in the new climate.

For Tsang, his most rewarding teaching moments often occurred over the summer, when he supervised a teen employment program, where students get paid to maintain the gardens at Willard and other Berkeley schools. He’d watched the young people, many of whom he’d seen struggle during the school year, become engaged in the process of tending to fruits and vegetables, which they would harvest and occasionally provide to high-end restaurants.

“Their work wasn’t to get a grade. It was a real-life application,” Tsang said. He decided to pitch something similar for the school year: a hands-on class where students would learn to garden and cook — and run their own business. The money they made selling meals would support the newly under-funded garden program. In the first year of Growing Leaders, the staff aimed to bring in $20,000. They made more than $30,000 selling the meals that year, according to the program’s website. The rest of the funding has come from the district and school, the Parent Teacher Association, private donations and the Berkeley Public Schools Fund.

Students, in seventh and eighth grade, make Caesar salad to complement the empanadas. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Growing Leaders has become a wildly popular elective for seventh- and eighth-graders. It is easy to court kids with the promise of taste-testing and a break from the books, but the students quickly learn there’s more to the class.

“We’ll be dealing with unit pricing, and kids will ask, ‘Why are we doing math? This is a cooking class.’ Well, sorry, it’s a business, you have to do math,” Tsang said.

It’s “really eye-opening” for students to realize there’s never an answer key to a Growing Leaders assignment, the teacher said. “Especially for this age, that’s really powerful. They’re all about testing boundaries, authority and autonomy. When you give that to them, the behavior issues go away,” Tsang said.

Listen in as students prepare a meal:

Students have eagerly taken on the responsibilities, from designing the Growing Leaders logo to wiping down the counters after meal preparation and tweaking the recipes. The idea to make and sell beef and mushroom empanadas, the recurring meal the kids were preparing that recent Thursday, originally came from a student. The class holds a vote on each important decision, and the students often override the adults in the room — Tsang, a classroom teacher, two cooking teachers and two gardening teachers.

“Time and time again, you see that when you set the bar high for students, they meet and exceed your expectations,” said Willard Principal Debbie Dean, who started her job the year the course began.

“Growing Leaders gives students a great deal of agency,” she said. “That ownership and pride moves to other places in the school, and lets them dream about things they want to do.” She said many members of her staff rely on the twice-monthly meals for their families.

Mariah, an eighth-grader in the class, said it’s a boost to her self-esteem to have customers and classmates excited about her work.

“I like cooking for other people,” said the 14-year-old. “Honestly, the fun part about it is having other people taste my food and seeing their reactions.” She said a strong sense of community has developed in the classroom, including among students who don’t usually hang out together.

Teacher Matt Tsang started the Growing Leaders program after funding for the school garden was cut. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Berkeley schools are well-known and respected for their gardening and cooking programs, but much of the attention is directed at the middle school across town from Willard. King’s Edible Schoolyard Project, a nonprofit like Growing Leaders, was created by Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters in 1995 and has since become a model for nutrition education at schools across the country.

Growing Leaders, while much newer, has started to build up a following, including many parents who have continued purchasing meals from the program after their kids moved onto high school.

The program hit another snag in February, when the platform they used to sell their meals, Josephine, announced it was going out of business. The local start-up aimed to legitimize home cooks who wanted to sell their food to neighbors, and Growing Leaders was one of its first clients. Along the way, Josephine ran into legal troubles, receiving a cease and desist order from health regulators. But the company was permitted to continue its work with nonprofits like Growing Leaders, and found a workaround that allowed private sales as well.

Growing Leaders had pages of rave reviews on Josephine. (“The shepherd’s pie was delicious and perfect comfort food for a rainy night. The salad was tasty with sweet bites of roasted beets and blood orange, nicely balanced with tangy dressing.”)

The Willard program, where four adults were required to obtain food-handling licenses, is now selling meals directly from its own website, and didn’t need to miss even a week of production, Tsang said.

He and some of the teachers and staff who run the program have experience working in commercial kitchens. For them, it wasn’t difficult to imagine such a large-scale endeavor succeeding at Willard.

“Cooking for 20 is easier than cooking for two,” Tsang said. Growing Leaders sells homemade granola, salad dressing and other add-ons along with the hot meals, which cost $12.

Students learn to fold the 300 empanadas ordered by customers for that night’s dinner. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Tsang also works part-time at Berkeley Technology Academy, BUSD’s continuation high school. His students there have just put out their first line of hot sauces. Tsang hopes to expand the Growing Leaders enterprise so kids can start with the middle school program, then receive a higher level of training in a paid position in high school. He has already written letters of recommendation for Growing Leaders alumni who are now applying for jobs in the food industry or elsewhere.

All students are learning “soft skills — how to be on time, work together and be accountable,” Tsang said.

Despite the accomplishments and goals of expansion, each twice-monthly meal is still an experiment in patience and coordination. Each of the 60 or so students, divided between two class periods, needs to be given a task to work on at all times. Three hundred meals must be prepared without the assistance of commercial-sized ovens or sinks, and delivered intact to paying customers.

“We end up washing a lot of dishes,” Tsang said.

Inevitably, there have been some disasters. The first time the class tried to make rice, for a pork pozole meal, they ended up with a part-crunchy, part-soggy mess. Like they did when their federal funding ran dry, Tsang and his colleagues came up with a creative alternative.

“We ended up having to run over to the Chinese restaurant across the street with the kids,” he said.

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...