Berkeley School Gardening, Cooking Programs Face Cuts

by Sarah Henry on March 26, 2012 · 27 comments

in berkeley bites,civil eats,growing greens,kids & food,school food,sfgate site

Students prepare to enjoy the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor from a school garden. Photos: Rivka Mason

Three of Berkeley Unified School District‘s elementary schools – Malcolm XRosa Parks, and Washington — are in jeopardy of losing their entire cooking and gardening program funds beginning in October this year.

Under existing guidelines, the schools will no longer qualify for federal funding because they have fewer than 50% of their students enrolled in the free and reduced-lunch program, according to Leah Sokolofski, who supervises the program for the district.

Berkeley has an international reputation for its edible schoolyards, where public school children of all economic means learn what it takes to grow a radish and sauté some chard. Such funding cuts to the program, whose total budget is $1.94 million a year, would represent a significant setback in the city’s pioneering efforts to date.

School gardening and cooking champion Alice Waters, whose Chez Panisse Foundation helped fund the Edible Schoolyard at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, expressed dismay at the potential budget cuts to programs. “It’s inevitable cuts will come — people think these programs are dispensable and the state of California is in a financial crisis — but it’s a tragedy,” she said.

Harvesting school garden kale together at Malcolm X Elementary in Berkeley

Waters recently raised over $500,000 to launch the Edible Schoolyard Project (ESP), an online resource that shares curriculum and best practice principles for garden and cooking programs with schools around the country. ESP has affiliate programs in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and New York. “We have to continue to make the case for why an edible education is so important to the health of every child and the health of the whole country,” she said.

BUSD school garden and cooking programs are funded through September 2012 through Network for a Healthy California, a state program that distributes federal monies to local school districts through a three-year grant. The network seeks to improve the health of low-income Californians through increased fruit and vegetable consumption and daily activity.

Changes to funding

Changes to the way school cooking and gardening programs are funded are coming down the track, however, following the passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which President Obama signed into law amid much fanfare in December 2010, with the goal of improving childhood nutrition.

“Until the new guidelines for eligibility are released we just don’t know what’s in store for our school programs,” said Sokolofski, who anticipates hearing later this month. “This is the biggest change in the funding for these programs in 11 years.”

Further complicating matters: The U.S. Farm Bill is up for reauthorization in 2012. Potential changes to funding priorities there may impact all the BUSD’s gardening and cooking programs as well. “The Farm Bill is yet another wild card because that’s the overall place where our funding comes from,” explained Sokolofski. “And any changes there could trump changes elsewhere. There are a lot of unknowns right now.”

While it’s possible that funding for these programs could remain intact, for now the immediate concern is the three schools who will likely not qualify for federal funds for the next school year, Sokolofski said.

Sharing the pleasures of an outdoor table at Berkeley's Malcolm X

Sokolofski has been sharing her concerns with school administrators, principals, parents, and teachers. A recent presentation at Malcolm X spurred dozens of parents to attend the March 7 BUSD board meeting, where they made a passionate case for protecting a program beloved of both students and adults.

Malcolm X parent and family doctor Shannon McCune, a Malcolm X alum herself, sees many young children in her practice and said she can immediately tell which of her patients have gardening at school. “They have a favorite vegetable and know why they’re good for you,” said McCune, whose daughter recently taught her mom how to make kale salad by massaging the leaves with oil, which eliminates the need for cooking the fibrous vegetable. “I would never have known how to do that if my daughter hadn’t shown me.”

Another physician-parent echoed McCune’s sentiment. Mickey Adams, a parent from Washington Elementary, talked about the challenges of working with adult patients who have obesity and other lifestyle diseases. “These people don’t know how to eat well and cook food — they’ve never been taught,” said Adams, whose children make recipes at home they’ve learned in school cooking classes. “These programs work and there will be so much damage done by cutting them and we’ll all pay on the other end.”

If kids grow and cook it they will eat their greens

As a school board member noted at the March 7 meeting, the value of such programs was measured in a recent UC Berkeley study, which 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.

School gardening teacher Joy Moore doesn’t need data to know the benefits such programs can bring. This kind of instruction gives young people alternative and innovative ways to learn, along with “skills for life,” said the long-time school food advocate.

School board president John Selawsky promised parents that the board will “see what it can do,” while acknowledging the challenging fiscal constraints already impacting the school district.

Malcolm X's school under the sky teaches more than just how to grow good food

For now, Berkeley schools are researching ways to sustain these threatened programs. “We’ve been looking at the possibility of grant funding, but most of the grants available are small and aimed at schools just starting a garden plot,” said Alexander Hunt, principal of Malcolm X. “We haven’t been able to find anything comparable to the $135,000 we stand to lose.”

Despite serving a growing group of children in need, Malcolm X’s free and reduced school lunch numbers stand at 46% of its student body. “Materials can’t replace the quality of programming currently being provided by our staff,” said Hunt. “It’s wonderful how these classes engage students in learning at the same time they impart the benefits of health and nutrition. They’re key to our students’ education.”

The Malcolm X PTA is also exploring whether a large corporation, local merchants, philanthropic individuals, or some other benefactor may step in to fill the void. It is also in the early stages of discussions with other PTAs about a collaborative effort to secure contributions. “The garden and cooking program at Malcolm X is beloved by the school community and the community at large,” added Hunt. “It’s sad to see that in the place where this school food movement started, we’re now going backwards trying to sustain these valuable programs.”

Sense of urgency

Malcolm X parent Marian Mabel noted a sense of urgency to secure funding for next year, which must be identified by June 30, when the school district’s budget is finalized. In addition, Mabel pointed out that not all the city’s schools currently offer these programs  — Berkeley Arts Magnet, Cragmont, Jefferson, and Oxford don’t receive any federal funds for such instruction. These schools rely on parent volunteers, PTA funds, and other sources to fund programs at their sites, if they have them at all.

“Short term, these three schools need to fill these funding gaps,” said Mabel, “but long term we want to find ways to make these programs available and sustainable to every public school student in Berkeley.”

As for Waters, another ESP program is in the planning stages for Sacramento, a strategic move, she said, so that she would be “under the noses” of state legislators. Waters, whose foundation has gifted about $10 million to BUSD, mostly to the Edible Schoolyard at King, also hopes that the governor will convene a taskforce for edible education soon to address the healthcare crisis among school children.

A parent-led meeting open to the community to update interested parties about the problem and brainstorm ideas about potential solutions is scheduled for this coming Monday, March 26, at the Malcolm X library at 7 p.m. Malcolm X is at 1731 Prince Street. Parents will also prepare public comments for the school board meeting on Wednesday March 28, where they intend to keep this issue on the minds of school board members.

Watch “The Whole World in a Small Seed,” a Lunch Love Community video on the Malcolm X school garden program run by Rivka Mason.

Salad days at Malcolm X's school garden

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside and was republished on Civil Eats and SFGate.

You might also like:

Alice Waters’ 40 Year Campaign for Good Food
Cultivating Controversy: In Defense of an Edible Education
Joy Moore: Community Food Reformer
New School Food Study: Victory for Alice Waters
Berkeley’s School Lunch Makes its Big Screen Debut
Alice Waters, Robert Reich talk up a delicious revolution
Chez Panisse birthday fundraising declared a success
Berkeley Bites: Tanya Henderson

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Brette Sember March 26, 2012 at 9:34 am

This a terrible shame, particularly because it is clear spending money on programs like these saves the country money on health care later in life. And if these programs can’t be supported in a place like Berkeley, what hope is there for the rest of the country?


Sarah Henry March 26, 2012 at 10:43 am

Well said, Brette, on both fronts.


Alexandra March 26, 2012 at 3:02 pm

I really hope this program is not cut, and if it is, that alternative funding is found before June 30. My granddaughter lives in LA and I had hoped similar program would come to her school. This is so important to teach children where food comes from and to eat fresh and local! Oh, I feel like crying at this news. Please keep your readers informed.
Alexandra´s last [type] ..Dreaming of Summer


Sarah Henry March 26, 2012 at 5:38 pm

Will do, Sandy. Keep hope alive.
Heading out to a meeting on this very matter right now.


Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart March 26, 2012 at 4:45 pm

Wow. It makes me worry if pioneering programs like these are in trouble, then what about smaller, less famous ones. I hope it all works out and the new guidelines come out fast, are clear, and reward the right things.
Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart´s last [type] ..Lilly’s Brain Injury and Exaggerated Agility Style


Sarah Henry March 26, 2012 at 5:39 pm

Good point, Rox. New guidelines coming soon. Stay tuned.


Sheryl March 26, 2012 at 5:30 pm

It’s sad when programs like this – that have doubtless future benefits – lose their funding. Hopefully things will change for the long term and this will only be temporary?


Sarah Henry March 26, 2012 at 5:40 pm

The school district and parents of students in these schools are indeed looking for ways to make these kinds of programs sustainable, Sheryl. But as you know, California is in a fiscal crisis and there are many competing, and worthy, demands for limited monies in our public schools.


erin scott March 27, 2012 at 7:13 am

I felt heartbroken this morning when I saw your post. Thank you for bringing this vital issue to light for so many of us. For my own 6th grader, edible education is the highlight of his week!


Sarah Henry March 28, 2012 at 6:38 am

Hi Erin, Nice to hear from a Berkeley school parent. And you said it so well.


Jane Boursaw March 27, 2012 at 7:27 am

This is maddening. I hope they can find a way to keep the program going because it would have far-reaching consequences if they can’t.


Sarah Henry March 27, 2012 at 9:19 am

That’s how a lot of people feel, Jane. Curious to see what they come up with in terms of a strategy both in the short-term and for long-term sustainability.


Irene March 27, 2012 at 9:51 am

Sounds like a wonderful program and so in line with the First Lady’s efforts!
We need to preserve programs like these and spend less money on guns and war.
My two cents!


Sarah Henry March 28, 2012 at 6:39 am

Two cents well said, Irene. I don’t think you’re alone in your thinking.


merr March 27, 2012 at 1:16 pm

It seems ironic that at a time when organic/local food consumption is growing and all the rage, that there should be cuts like this. Perhaps your coverage will convince some to lend a hand at preserving this program.
merr´s last [type] ..stuck/unstuck: MEN UNDRESSED contributors talk internal conflict and writing


Sarah Henry March 27, 2012 at 1:54 pm

Agreed, merr, especially during an administration that has Let’s Move — the exercise and eat right campaign — as one of its defining mottos.


Kris @ Attainable Sustainable March 27, 2012 at 9:00 pm

A school garden that has kids eating healthy greens and learning where food comes from? It’s a travesty to think that a program like this could be lost due to belt tightening and budget cuts. The skills these kids learn could actually cut family budgets in the long run!
Kris @ Attainable Sustainable´s last [type] ..Homemade Gluten Free Cheese Crackers


Sarah Henry March 28, 2012 at 6:39 am

Not only cut family budgets, but hospital and health costs down the track too, Kris.


Kerry Dexter March 28, 2012 at 5:26 am

cuts or not, it sounds as though parents and school administrators (and one would think, kids!) are working of creative ideas of other ways to sustain these programs, whatever happens with the grant funding now supporting them. here’s wishing them success on all fronts, and, Sarah, I’ know you’ll continue to let us know what’s going on with this.
Kerry Dexter´s last [type], silence, and spiritual journey


Sarah Henry March 28, 2012 at 6:41 am

I will Kerry. And I’m so glad you raised this point. Parents — and kids with garden art in tow — were out in force at the recent board meeting with more to come tonight. And there are lots of ideas in the works to draw in the community. Stay tuned.


Donna Hull March 29, 2012 at 9:25 am

Sad to hear about these funding cuts, especially for a program that teaches healthy eating habits to children who might not learn about it otherwise. Hopefully the seeds of knowledge that this program has planted will grow in an entirely new way.
Donna Hull´s last [type] ..Taking a chance on Egypt: should boomers go?


Sarah Henry March 31, 2012 at 6:18 pm

Where there’s challenge creativity often emerges, Donna, and that seems to hold true in this case, where a community is forming to save these programs. More soon.


amee March 29, 2012 at 6:26 pm

Thanks for this post. I was enlightened by what was possible here and saddened by the thought of these children losing the opportunity… and yes, Cali, get it in shape otherwise we Texans have zero hope. ze-ro!


Sarah Henry March 31, 2012 at 6:19 pm

Fill me in, Amee, on how things look in this regard in your state.


MyKidsEatSquid March 31, 2012 at 5:40 pm

Wishing them success here too. Dr. McCune’s quote really resonates: “They have a favorite vegetable and know why they’re good for you.”


Sarah Henry March 31, 2012 at 6:20 pm

I still remember taking my son and his then-third-grade buddy to the farmers’ market where his pal asked me, polite as can be: “Could I please have some money for a handful of sprouts?” Only in Berkeley, perhaps. Of course, my son was coveting the fruit pastries sold by another vendor at the time.


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