It's a sad sign of the times people when a long-time culinary instructor from the Berkeley Unified School District's Gardening and Cooking Program has to start hawking real estate to earn enough to pay her own mortgage because of budget cuts in the classroom.
But that's the status quo for Carrie Fehr, a 14-year veteran of the BUSD's program, once widely touted as a model for the nation. Fehr, a former restaurateur who ran her own joint in the French Alps, has been reassigned to new schools in Berkeley due to the financial crisis, which we reported on here back in May. Gone is her full-time gig at Washington and Rosa Parks elementary schools, she's now providing part-time instruction at Longfellow Middle School and Jefferson, an elementary school that has not previously offered cooking curriculum. She's operating out of a space barely big enough to swing a cat, let alone teach young children how to use a knife. And yet she still lights up when she talks about explaining to students the significance of the "The Three Sisters" -- that's corn, beans, and squash -- and their rich cultural and culinary history.
Many would find the current work conditions untenable. But Fehr's blessed with a sunny disposition. Where others see obstacles she sees possibilities. And, of course, there are all those eager students who are hungry for nourishing stories and delicious samples. On Tuesday night, the North Shattuck Association and the BUSD will co-host a Taste of North Berkeley to benefit the struggling program. Trust me, there are worse ways to spend 30 bucks. Plus there's stuff to snack on: curry butternut squash & pear soup from SOOP, a charcuterie plate courtesy of The Local Butcher Shop, shrimp dumplings thanks to Kirala 2, frangipane galette from Gregoire, gelato from Lush, apple cider and (it's Berkeley, folks) a free class pass from Yogakula, and more.
Fehr, who helped raise $25,000 for the program through a Dine Out event last spring, filled BAB in on the current state of play at Berkeley schools.
What's happened to the BUSD Gardening & Cooking program since we last reported on it?
With the loss of federal funds, the program downsized from nearly $2 million to $600,000 this year. Many cooking and gardening jobs have been cut, due to the dramatic loss of funds, and the remaining staff is working more hours to achieve similar results, with reduced FTEs. All cooking instructors have lost the support of their assistants, giving rise to a new set of challenges that truncate the overall classroom experience. As a result, students receive less one-to-one assistance, less instruction for tools/skills, less "lesson" content, and their classroom teachers are required to assume responsibilities, such as set up and breakdown, previously managed by assistants. The cooking and gardening staff is admirably working through this new set of challenges, while the impending sense of uncertainty continues.
What does that mean for you personally?
It means a longer work day that is filled with new challenges for less money. In addition to working at two new schools, I have accepted a position as a real estate agent. It is an economic necessity and has made sense for me, given my love of design. It's an aesthetic I have brought to the cooking classroom, transforming an ordinary classroom into a vibrant cooking lab in a matter of minutes. Setting the culinary stage is important because it announces the drama of the cooking adventure, and hooks students instantly.
What are kids missing out on with these cuts?
Learning opportunities: Cooking and gardening classes support all learning modalities, so each child is given every opportunity to succeed and practice application of their academic skills taught in the traditional classroom. It is a level playing ground that serves as a springboard for children to explore real-life opportunities. Students become trusting of new food experiences, proud and confident of their kitchen skills, and discover connections to their academic subjects. Education is key. It is crucial that every child is given access to the tools that will help enable them to lead a healthier life.
What's the goal for Tuesday's Gourmet Ghetto event?
To bring together the community, and to help raise awareness and money for our program. To support and show appreciation for the culinary collaboration of the North Berkeley community and to have fun in the process. To stand up for the integrity of food education.
Despite all the difficulties, why do you keep doing what you do?
This deep and meaningful work nourishes children on the inside and is a vital link to our educational system, community and health. Across the nation there is currently a lot of momentum behind food education at school--teaching kids about food, where it comes from and its impact on their health. It is important to keep this conversation alive. In a world of fast food and obesity we have a responsibility to help shape a healthier future for our children. It’s an investment that will pay dividends for generations to come.