Wednesday, August 27, 2014

In Bid for Survival, School Garden Grows Business Plan

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
Bay Area News Group

BERKELEY -- Four hundred and 50 pounds of tomatoes, 300 pounds of tomatillos, 20 pounds of lettuce a week and 950 pizzas. 

That's the rough yearly output of Willard Middle School's 15,000-foot school garden, which is going into business this year to keep its cooking and gardening curriculum afloat, following federal budget cuts a year and a half ago that wiped out all of its $180,000 yearly budget. 

The school, which has integrated its garden into the school curriculum for 17 years now, is partnering with UC Berkeley business school students and high school students to sell food from the garden -- including eggs laid by school chickens -- to raise money for the cash strapped program. 

Last month the school board bought the pitch by Willard Gardening Director Matt Tsang, and the Growing Leaders pilot program is getting off the ground. 

"It will be challenging," Tsang said. "My hope is for kids to apply some of the skills they are learning in school to the gardening." 

Officials at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley hope the program will "provide nutritional, environmental, entrepreneurial and financial literacy education," according to a letter from the Center for Young Entrepreneurs at the school to the Berkeley school board. 

Tsang said the school district funds just $23,000 of his $180,000 a year budget, which includes supplies and five part-time gardening and cooking instructors. This school year donations and grants brought in about $157,000, but Tsang said he needed at least part of his budget to be more stable. He thinks by selling take away meals like pizzas, chili verde and egg dishes, students could bring in about $30,000. 

All 550 students at the school take the cooking and gardening classes at Willard. Some of those students, for example, "will have to come up with a garden budget and decide how much to grow," Tsang said. 

Others might bring the lettuce the school grows to restaurants and be responsible for calculating invoices and tracking inventory. 

The plan by the business school is to open the Willard Farm Store to sell produce from the garden and sell take away dinners twice a month for $25 each. It also includes bringing in high school students to act as mentors to the middle school entrepreneurs. 

In addition to all that financial literacy and math, there's a practical side to it, too. Trew Rodgers, 15, was getting a taste of it Wednesday as she took a break from a summer gardening program to make some banana bread in the school cooking classroom. 

"I've learned how to take care of my own garden and cook new things," Rodgers said. "I learned how to cook all different kinds of greens, and this is the first time I've ever cooked banana bread." 

Tsang said getting the school board to approve his pilot program was all about "allowing us to be more innovative in our strategy to fund this thing, and they agreed." 

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