Berkeley School Cooking and Gardening Programs in Jeopardy

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If they grow it and cook it they will eat it Part One: Students at Willard Middle School in Berkeley. Photo: Matt Tsang
If they grow it and cook it they will eat it Part One: Students at Willard Middle School in Berkeley. Photo: Matt Tsang

Berkeley's beloved school gardening and cooking program, where public school children plant peas, cook kale, and chase chickens--all while discovering connections to nature, science, language, math, health, nutrition and other life lessons--is in dire straits due to pending federal funding cuts.

Come October, the Berkeley Unified School District's (BUSD) edible education efforts will lose $1.9 million of U.S. Department of Agriculture financing (administered through the Network for a Healthy California) for 14 school cooking and garden programs, from the preschool through high school level. Unless replacement income is found, such cuts would essentially gut the district program, considered a model around the country.

"BUSD schools are deeply committed to saving their garden and cooking programs and are working closely with their principals, PTAs, the school district, and the extended community to raise funds for the coming year and beyond," says Marian Mabel, a parent at Malcolm X Elementary and member of a group called the Berkeley Schools Gardening and Cooking Alliance, which was launched last year when Malcolm X, along with two other schools, looked set to lose their federal funds. (The alliance successfully lobbied the school board for a year of bridge funding, which, ultimately, wasn’t needed when a one-year extension of federal monies was granted.)

Now, district officials, individual schools, and a core of parent volunteers are scrambling to try and save the program, which began as a community effort 15 years ago. And prominent local restaurateurs and chefs have stepped up to show their support too.

The cooking and gardening movement in Berkeley's schools, documented in a series of short videos under the Lunch Love Community umbrella (featured in a 2011 BAB post), has received federal funds for 12 years. But recent changes in federal funding priorities and state administering of these monies, along with changing demographics in BUSD schools, has lead to a pending shift in the allocation of resources. Despite last year's one-year reprieve from the feds, no such extension of support is expected for the next school year, given changes to U.S. government guidelines with the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

If they grow it and cook it they will eat it Part Two: Students at Le Conte Elementary School in Berkeley. Photo: Sophie Constantinou
If they grow it and cook it they will eat it Part Two: Students at Le Conte Elementary School in Berkeley. Photo: Sophie Constantinou

The school district saw the cuts coming. So last November, the superintendent convened an advisory committee on garden and cooking to identify and secure both short-term bridge funding and long-term sustainable funding, through major donor and corporate giving campaigns, public-private partnerships, and other fundraising efforts, all of which are either in the works or being explored. At a school board meeting on Wednesday, committee members will make a case for a commitment of $300,000 a year for two years to help maintain the program, according to Melanie Parker, interim supervisor for the BUSD's Gardening and Cooking Nutrition Program. (Last year the district pledged up to $350,000 for the three schools facing cuts to their programs for this school year.)


The committee has outlined four tiers of funding options for the immediate future. These range from a fully-funded program costing $2 million a year, to a worst case scenario situation of part-time staff offering limited instruction and charged with keeping the gardens alive at about $250,000 a year. The largest cost of the program, not surprisingly, is salaries and benefits for cooking and gardening teachers and assistants. While most of these employees work part-time, they are paid the full-time equivalent of between $25,000 and $50,000. Many of these instructors, adored by students, parents, and school officials alike, have been working in the schools since the start of this program and the thought of losing their educational experience and institutional wisdom is viewed as a potentially devastating blow to the program.

The BUSD committee is recommending funding at a reduced level, what they're calling a "tier two scenario" or a 50 percent cut in program costs for a total of $1.04 million a year, which translates into fewer students receiving instruction and reduced staffing hours. "The committee felt it was important to be realistic about how much money we could raise -- and raising $4 million over the next two years to maintain our current programs felt incredibly challenging," says Parker, who noted a recent $100,000 infusion of state funds that has been committed to the cause courtesy of the City of Berkeley's Public Health Department. Still, she acknowledges, there is a long way to go to secure full funding for next fall.

Fourteen of Berkeley's 19 schools have gotten federal funding in the past, money designed to benefit schools with significant low-income populations. The programs slated to lose their funding come October include Berkeley High School, Berkeley Technology Academy, Longfellow and Willard middle schools. Seven elementary schools face cuts, including Emerson, John Muir, LeConte, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Thousand Oaks and Washington. Hopkins, Franklin and King preschools will also be impacted by the loss of income.

The community is gearing up to raise funds and awareness on many levels. A petition is gathering signatures in support of the campaign. Individual schools are writing grant proposals and holding plant sales, movie nights, and fun runs to support cooking and gardening instruction. Meanwhile, a city-wide Dine Out event is slated for May 30, with prominent local food businesses and restaurants in the mix such as the Cheese Board, Comal, Gather, Ippuku, La Note, and Revival Bar + Kitchen, who are all donating a percentage of sales to the classroom campaign.

Berkeley Dine Out

For some who have signed on in support it's both a professional and personal cause. "My three kids have benefited from the cooking and gardening programs at BUSD; my oldest daughter says the garden program at Willard was the only thing that got her through middle school," says Christian Geideman, owner-chef of the critically-acclaimed Ippuku, featuring izakaya-style dining in downtown Berkeley. "And my youngest still talks about Farmer Ben and the chickens at Le Conte Elementary." Geideman sees the benefits of such programs beyond the school years. "The restaurant industry is a major employer in our area, imagine how much teenagers could learn in four years that could prepare them for culinary careers," he says. "I know that as a troubled teen I could have benefited from such a program; it should be expanded at Berkeley High, not cut."

Geideman's partner in work and life, Erinn Geideman, discovered first hand the positive effects of the program when she worked as an assistant to Washington Elementary's cooking teacher Carrie Fehr. "At the elementary school age it's mostly about giving them access to the process: peeling, chopping and handling food," says Erinn Giedeman. "When you teach a small child how to cut their own food it gives them a real sense of accomplishment. And when they taste what they've created it's exciting and fills the kids with pride." Many students, Erinn Geideman also noted, mentioned sharing the recipes at home with their families, an important aspect of a program that emphasizes healthy, seasonal eating geared towards fruit, vegetable, and whole grain recipes, designed with obesity and diabetes prevention in mind. The value of such edible education programs are hard to quantify in terms of test scores but one measure in a UC Berkeley study found that young students routinely exposed to fruits and vegetables through cooking and gardening instruction ate 1.5 more servings of produce a day compared with kids with fewer opportunities to dig in the dirt and work the stove at school.

The best known cooking and gardening program in Berkeley schools, King Middle School’s Edible Schoolyard, is not impacted by the cuts, as its programs are paid for by the Edible Schoolyard Project, founded by Chez Panisse owner Alice Waters. But the ESP (formerly the Chez Panisse Foundation) project staff are working with the BUSD community to come up with a financial plan for the future of its imperiled programs. "The loss of federal funding to support BUSD's garden and cooking programs is a tragedy and ample evidence, if any were needed, that the call for this transformational change--to bring kids in the public schools into a healthy and delicious relationship with food--needs to get still louder," says Katrina Heron, executive director of ESP.

Kyle Cornforth, director of ESY Berkeley, is on the superintendent's advisory committee and active in the Berkeley Schools Gardening and Cooking Alliance and the alliance's Marian Mabel says Cornforth has been instrumental in providing assistance to help strengthen the curriculum components of the BUSD's cooking and gardening instruction to make the strongest possible case that such programs are indispensable to students. To that end, the committee is re-envisioning the program at a district-wide level (for all schools, including four elementary schools currently ineligible for federal funds) and seek to integrate the program into Common Core State Standards and what's known as 2020 Vision, Berkeley's effort to end racial disparities in academic achievement.

If they grow it and cook it they will eat it Part Three: Students at Willard Middle School in Berkeley. Photo: Matt Tsang
If they grow it and cook it they will eat it Part Three: Students at Willard Middle School in Berkeley. Photo: Matt Tsang

Mindful of what is happening across the bay in Berkeley, Education Outside (formerly the San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance) is working hard to tie outdoor education in San Francisco public schools to core curriculum such as science, in a program launched three years ago. It's also trying to keep costs in check, by hiring young, service corps members for $25,000 a year to run these programs, set to be in 21 K-5 schools this fall. "What is happening in Berkeley is instructive, it shows how easily these kinds of programs can be cut or lopped off, that's why we're focusing on making them an integral part of every student's day," says Arden Bucklin-Sporer, Education Outside's executive director. "We never use the term 'gardening' or 'cooking,' which suggest that they're extra programs not integral to curriculum."

Back in the East Bay, another relatively new model for providing edible education is coming to Oakland schools this fall, via a national program known as FoodCorps, which places a service member in a school for a year to help tend or build a school garden, improve school cafeteria food, and talk up healthy eating with students. It costs FoodCorps about $32,500 to put a service member in a school, including a $15,000 stipend, a $5,550 Americorps award, and health benefits. FoodCorps has partnered with the Edible Schoolyard Project for a summer academy geared towards FoodCorps fellows, service members with one year of experience, who are training to become peer-mentors at sites around the country.

For now, in Berkeley the focus remains on saving a lauded program many years in the making. "What's in jeopardy is losing the groundwork from developing a nationally-recognized program," says Willard Middle School parent Cindy Tsai Schultz, who is on the school's gardening and cooking committee. "In 1995 at Willard, Matt Tsang, our gardening coordinator, started with two small planter boxes. Today we have a model program with a flourishing garden, six chickens, and gardening and cooking classes that integrate nutrition education with math and science," she adds. "Our garden produces enough food for cooking classes for over 500 children. The garden also provides a safe and peaceful place and offers students a sense of security. We can't lose the last 15 years of hard work and kids' strong connection with the program. We can't let all that nurturing turn to weeds."


Donations to the BUSD Garden and Cooking Program can be made through the Berkeley Public Education Foundation, when making a donation through BPEF, specify that the contribution is earmarked for the BUSD Garden and Cooking Program. For information on volunteer opportunities for the Dine Out fundraiser, to offer suggestions for major funders, or to donate email:

If they grow it and cook it they will eat it Part Four: Students at Malcolm X Elementary School in Berkeley. Photo: Rivka Mason
If they grow it and cook it they will eat it Part Four: Students at Malcolm X Elementary School in Berkeley.
Photo: Rivka Mason
A thriving sanctuary at school. Photo: Rivka Mason
A thriving sanctuary at school. Photo: Rivka Mason