Washing off freshly picked asparagus at the Willard Middle School garden. Parents at the school are protesting suggested cuts to the cooking and gardening program. (Kaia Diringer/Berkeleyside)
Washing off freshly picked asparagus at the Willard Middle School garden. Parents at the school are protesting suggested cuts to the cooking and gardening program. (Kaia Diringer/Berkeleyside)

By Tracey Taylor

The cooking component of Berkeley schools’ highly regarded cooking and gardening program may soon be eliminated for financial reasons, and the future of the entire program in middle and high schools is also at risk.

The Berkeley Unified School District board was scheduled to hear details of the proposal in a presentation titled “Re-envisioning the Cooking and Gardening Program” at its regular meeting Wednesday. However, the item has been postponed, according to Jezra Thompson, director of the cooking and gardening program.

Under the proposal, cooking classes would be eliminated for the 2014-15 academic year. The focus of the program would then center on gardening for pre-kindergarten through third grades. Gardening programs for middle school and high school students would be eliminated.

The need to make cuts has been triggered by a loss of funds, in particular $1.9 million in federal funding from the California Nutrition Network that was withdrawn last fall. The budget for 2014-15 is just $375,586, which includes a necessary allocation of $300,000 from the BUSD general fund.

Thompson said cooking is a financially heavy piece of the equation, which explains why it is being suggested that it be cut. “It doesn’t have the infrastructure of gardening,” she said. “So we could bring it back in the future. It’s a matter of funding what we can fund.”

Thompson said that while the new proposal calls for all school gardens to continue to be maintained, gardening instruction would likely be halted at the city’s middle and high schools.

“It’s up for debate,” she said, stressing that the proposal is informational at this point. “But with the limits we are facing, we have to decide where is it more effective to focus.” Thompson said research showed that cooking and gardening classes were most valuable in early childhood years.

Read “Re-envisioning the Cooking and Gardening Program” in the school board’s agenda packet, starting at Page 334.

To date, the fully funded program has been active at 11 Berkeley elementary schools, two middle schools, two high schools and three early childhood education sites. It employs 17 instructional specialists, a part-time clerical program coordinator and a three-quarter-time supervisor. (The districtwide program is separate from the internationally acclaimed Edible Schoolyard Project at King Middle School. That program is integrated with King’s curriculum but funded and operated through a nonprofit foundation.)

Efforts to raise significant outside resources to fund the program have not been sufficiently fruitful. Thompson said a grant writer was hired last year but that fundraising was not successful. She said reaching out to donors is complicated by the fact that the program is now part of educational services and requires a commitment by BUSD to provide regular financing.

The program has traditionally been bolstered by significant parent and community support. On hearing about the proposed cuts, parents at Willard Middle School expressed alarm at the idea of doing away with what they say is “at the heart of what they want their children to learn.”

They shared a statement with Berkeleyside, part of which read: “We request immediate establishment of a committee to look at the BUSD budget and come up with a solution that avoids program closure. You do not dismantle a national model; it would take at least a decade to rebuild. The short and long-term costs to our children in terms of poor food choices, lack of environmental education, and the scholastic and physical repercussions of greater immobility during the school day are unacceptable.” [Read the full statement.]

The group is urging the community to sign a petition urging the federal government to reinstate funds for the program.

Meantime, Thompson said the need to act now is imperative. “If we don’t come up with something, this program is going to die next year,” she said. “The proposal helps give us a baseline and we can build from there.”

The BUSD board meets Wednesday evening at 7:30 p.m. at Council Chambers, Old City Hall, 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, in downtown Berkeley. At press time, the item on the cooking and gardening program is no longer expected to be on the agenda.

KQED News Associate Berkeleyside is an independently owned news website based in Berkeley, Calif. Click here if you would you like to receive the latest Berkeley news in your inbox once a day for free with Berkeleyside’s Daily Briefing email.

Berkeley’s Trailblazing School Garden Program Is on the Chopping Block 29 January,2014KQED News Staff

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