Facing a massive loss of federal funds, Berkeley Unified officials may yank an innovative gardening and cooking program up by the roots. The slash and burn tactics are drawing widespread community fire.

For about 15 years, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture has taught low-income families about nutrition through school programs like the Network for a Healthy California. Congress, however, has revised its funding formula and California, which used to receive nearly a third of all USDA money, will lose about 40 percent of its grant. The funding for direct-to-kids programs like the NHC will be shifted to local health agencies to run publicity campaigns.

On May 8, hundreds of parent, student, faculty and staff supporters rallied outside the school board, then packed the meeting for a discussion of saving the NHC. The board is leaning toward a plan to provide $300,000 per year in bridge funding until voters approve a parcel tax or find another source of revenue. A final decision is expected in late May.

The NHC is deeply rooted in Berkeley, from preschool to high school. Pioneering local restaurateur Alice Waters was instrumental in cultivating the program at King Middle School, where her Edible Schoolyard Foundation is still involved. Today, about two dozen paraeducators at 14 of 18 schools teach students to grow produce and turn it into nutritious meals.

“When we get the kids enthused about food, they take it home and spread it. We’ve heard that many families now sit down and eat together much more than before.” — Michael Bauce, cooking teacher

At Thousand Oaks Elementary, AFT Local 6192 members Daria Wrubel and Michael Bauce teach gardening and cooking, respectively, to about 450 students in 21 classrooms.

During a typical school day, Wrubel will teach everything from the lifecycle of sugar snap peas to the care and feeding of the garden’s two chickens, Cinnamon and Sugar.

“I get to see students make their own connections. They watch the plants grow, then eat them and remember the growth cycle. They get a deeper understanding of where we fit in this world.”

Bauce has taught at Berkeley elementary schools since the cooking component of the NHC began in 1999. He teaches the same recipe for the two weeks it takes all 21 classrooms to cycle through his kitchen, using greens the students grow in the garden.

Bauce’s classes are hands-on. “Kids are more likely to try food they aren’t familiar with if they had a hand with all the cutting and stirring to prepare it. In the 13 years I’ve been doing this, kids have become much more open to trying new things.”

One of the NHC’s unexpected benefits, he said, has been to strengthen students’ families. “When we get the kids enthused about food, they take it home and spread it. We’ve heard that many families now sit down and eat together much more than before. It’s great for kids who were coming to school hungry and depressed.”

Matt Tsang teaches everything from ecology to compost systems in the Willard Middle School garden to all 519 students in grades 6 through 8. Tsang teaches three to five classes daily. Students study in class for 20 minutes and work in the garden for an hour. There are also after-school gardening and cooking classes.

All food grown goes into the cooking program. They built a wood-fired oven to cook 900 vegetarian pizzas a year with fresh tomatoes, basil and garlic, and canned 350 pounds of Roma tomatoes for pizza sauce.

Tsang’s 13 chickens produce a steady stream of eggs and teachable moments for seventh graders studying animal development. “The eggs are used for cooking and the coop is a great source for composting. It makes for a healthy ecosystem here at school.”

— By Steve Weingarten, CFT Reporter