Berkeley school district’s gardening program receives $40,000 grant from Annie’s

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Amanda Hart/Staff

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Thanks to a $40,000 grant from Annie’s Homegrown on Monday, Berkeley’s Longfellow Middle School will have an opportunity to redevelop a gardening program.

The school will receive the money through Berkeley Unified School District’s Gardening and Cooking Program. The funding will pay for educators, such as garden instructors, and gardening supplies.

“This is the first time Annie’s has given a grant of this level to a local school,” said Annie’s spokesperson Keely Fadrhonc in an email. “(We) love that Berkeley’s Public School Gardening and Cooking Program engages students with hands-on instruction — from planting, to maintaining, educating and more.”

The program teaches preschool through seventh-grade students districtwide and focuses on nutrition, peer-to-peer communication and problem-solving, all while students garden and cook.

The grant from Annie’s comes as federal funding is waning, stifling the program’s proliferation throughout the school district, according to Jezra Thompson, the gardening program’s supervisor. In 2013, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture cut $1.9 million in funding for the program, Longfellow lost its garden-based curriculum.

“They hadn’t had garden instruction over the last couple of years,” Thompson said.

For the 2015-16 school year, aside from $441,000 in one-time funding from the school district, the gardening program received $350,000 in funding from the school district’s general fund and $250,000 from Measure D, or “soda tax,” revenue. The program also relies on fundraising, donations and volunteer work.

While the gardening program at Longfellow has not yet relaunched, similar programs throughout the school district have seen commendation from teachers and students. Matt Tsang — the director of Growing Leaders, a gardening program based at Berkeley’s Willard Middle School — said hands-on learning in gardens makes for an apt educational supplement.

“For kids who are already doing well in the mainstream classroom, it’s a really enriching experience, and for kids who haven’t been as engaged in the mainstream classroom, it’s another way to reach them,” Tsang said. “If you’re growing something and seeing it grow, you see the results of your efforts probably a lot sooner than a lot of things that you learn in class.”

In the midst of working on an art project near the garden, Willard students expressed enthusiasm for their gardening program and how it enhances their studies in the classroom.

“In school and elementary school, we learn the seasons and how plants grow, but in here, you learn about certain plants, you learn how to plant actual plants, you learn how to cook,” said Izzy Velazquez, an eighth grader at Willard. “But regular school, without a garden program, it wouldn’t include cooking or gardening, so until (students) were in college or at home, they wouldn’t know how to cook or garden.”

Contact Andrea Platten at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @andreaplatten.