.A Garden Thrives in Berkeley

Thanks to the efforts of garden instructor Matt Tsang, students at Willard Middle School are harvesting vegetables, cooking meals, and selling them to the public.

One rainy evening in late November, the Willard Middle School kitchen bustled with activity. Students sliced golden cornbread into square portions and ladled steaming chili into take-out containers. Volunteers shuttled baking trays back and forth while visitors paid for meals they had ordered online. Matt Tsang, Willard’s garden program manager, chatted with the students serving food, checked in with the volunteers, and greeted visitors at the door. His hearty laugh could frequently be heard over the din.

This was the third meal that Willard students prepared with ingredients from their school garden and sold to the community through Tsang’s new program, Growing Leaders. The program is Tsang’s response to last year’s federal budget cuts that de-funded Berkeley schools’ well-regarded gardening and cooking programs, along with other nutrition education programs across the nation. Left with a barebones budget that was pieced together from donations and grants and that would require Willard Middle School to axe all cooking classes and limit gardening only to sixth graders, Tsang, in collaboration with a network of dedicated volunteers and teachers, proposed something new: a gardening and cooking class that would help pay for itself.

Growing Leaders meals are like savory bake sales gone high-tech and gourmet. Tsang’s seventh/eighth grade elective class plans the meals, grows vegetables in the garden, cooks the food, sells the meals, and learns about entrepreneurship in the process. Before meals are sold to the public on Thursday evenings, Tsang’s students dedicate a week of classes to harvesting and preparing ingredients, then cooking and assembling the meals. Growing Leaders has partnered with Josephine, a new online platform (Josephine.com) that connects homemade meals to hungry — paying — neighbors. Tsang hopes his students will sell about 150 meals every other week — and with the meals priced at $10, they’re hoping to raise $20,000 per year to help support Willard’s gardening and cooking programs. It’s an ambitious business plan for middle school students to pull off, but if anyone can lead the program to success, it’s Tsang.

Tsang started working in the Willard garden seventeen years ago as an AmeriCorps member. Since then, he’s grown the school’s garden from a few haphazard planter boxes to a model outdoor classroom for Willard’s 550 students. He’s known around school for his wide, easy smile, and for his lighthearted, joking nature. Thanks to Tsang’s green thumb and years of digging and planting with students, the garden is now a lush, productive mini-farm that is slowly taking over the lower part of the asphalt schoolyard and the defunct Willard pool area.

Tsang is more than just a gardening teacher. He also moonlights as the coach of an elite Bay Area women’s Ultimate Frisbee team, Fury, which he’s led to seven national titles and two world championships. He was also the assistant coach of the US national Ultimate Frisbee team that won gold in the 2013 Ultimate World Games in Colombia. “Coaching and teaching are really similar,” Tsang explained. “A lot of being successful … is about being resilient. I say with my sports team that we’re striving to be perfect — but perfect in how we react to imperfection.”

The same attitude has served Tsang well in his position at Willard. Budget cuts, short class periods, lack of job security, the challenge of coordinating thirty kids to safely cook meals that taste good — none of these challenges seem to faze him. His secret to staying positive, he said, is “just not accepting that those obstacles are immovable.”

After the district-wide budget cuts last year slashed Tsang’s position to less than half-time, the school and community rallied to raise funds to support him. Willard’s principal, Debbie Dean, said Tsang and other volunteers were “writing grants tirelessly” last year to try to keep the garden and cooking program alive. This year, the school is helping fund a year of Growing Leaders’ programming as a pilot project, even though it is more expensive to run than other elective classes because it requires instructors in both the garden and kitchen. “The community believes in it,” Dean said. “It was our parents and the larger community that raised an incredible amount of money to keep the gardening and cooking program going.”

Dean said some people at the school originally had doubts about whether Tsang’s plan for Growing Leaders would work. Would they really be able to sell more than a hundred meals every other week? Now, she said, skeptics have changed their minds. Willard parents have come out in droves to buy the food. “They sell out every time,” she said.

This success is due, in part, to the strong community Tsang has built.

Cindy Tsai Schultz, parent of a Willard student who graduated two years ago, came to observe one of Tsang’s classes when she heard that funding for the school’s gardening and cooking program was going to be cut. She remembers seeing a diverse group of students calmly chopping vegetables with six-inch-long chef’s knives. “I saw these kids really engaged, really nurtured,” Tsai Schultz recalled. “One of the boys told me it was the only place he felt safe.” Touched by what she saw and heard, Tsai Schultz now volunteers as Growing Leaders’ director of community partnerships.

Since then, she has raised funds for the program, developed a plan for getting local business owners to mentor students, and forged the initial connection with Josephine to manage the logistics of selling the food. “The missing link for us was, how are we going to market this?” she said. “We had to hit the ground running with these meals.”

Twenty-four year old Charley Wang, one of the founders of Josephine, seems almost starstruck by Tsang. “When I first met Matt, the first thing that came through my head was, ‘I should be following that guy. I should be trying to do that,'” Wang said. “We had a conversation where I was like, ‘Hey, whatever you do next, keep me on the roster.’… To be able to work with people like Matt is really awesome.”

Wang isn’t the only one who feels that way. Tsang has an army of supporters who donate their time and expertise to help Growing Leaders stay afloat. “We have a team,” Tsang said, gesturing to the Willard kitchen full of students, parents, Josephine employees, and volunteers from UC Berkeley and local high schools.

But even the best team can’t operate without enough resources. It’s not clear whether there will be funds available for Growing Leaders from the school or the district next year, and the funds that students can raise by selling food, while considerable, are not enough to cover all the costs of staffing the program.

District-wide, there are hopes that future funding for Berkeley schools’ gardening and cooking programs will come from revenue from Measure D, the soda tax initiative passed by city voters last month. Measure D will tax sugar-sweetened beverages by one cent per ounce, and is estimated to raise at least $1 million per year in general funds for the city. “I’m hopeful that money will be spent for nutrition education and public health,” said Josh Daniels, president of the Berkeley school board. But ultimately, he said, the decision about what to do with the funds lies with the city council.

“It’s stressful a bit,” Tsang said. He has no guarantees that his program, or his job, will exist next year. But because he has seen how Growing Leaders can engage students in school as well as teach them marketable job skills, he is committed to making it work. When school was canceled during a recent rainstorm, several students and volunteers offered to help the Growing Leaders staff finish preparing all the meals for sale that evening.

“This has been a very positive program for getting the school community and parents involved in our students becoming entrepreneurs,” principal Dean said. But whether the program will continue next year, she added, “will come down to the dollars.”


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