Visiting the Coastside last week, U.S. Rep Jackie Speier introduced her speech on health care reform by honoring the HEAL project, the local agricultural education program that has taken root at most Cabrillo Unified elementary schools.
But despite having such powerful fans, HEAL – which stands for Health, Environment, Agriculture and Local Partners — is facing big trouble as it enters the 2009-2010 school year. A shortage in funding is forcing the nonprofit to cut back on classes and projects at Coastside schools, possibly eliminating the program entirely at El Granada Elementary and trimming its instructor’s hours at Farallone View and Hatch elementary schools.
HEAL directors say they are starting this year’s classes with a meager budget of about $80,000 — a sum much smaller than previous years.
“We’re having to pull back this year,” said HEAL Director and founder Lisa Wasilewski. “This puts a real challenge in front of us.”
Officials at the nonprofit have been writing grant proposals and trying to get individual parent-teacher organizations to step in to help keep the program afloat. But in a tough budget year, every dollar of funding has become a fight, Wasilewski said.
A two-year program for second- and third–graders, the HEAL project teaches students agriculture and science with a strong focus on environmental sustainability. Not directly connected with Cabrillo schools, the HEAL project was an independent initiative started at Hatch Elementary in 2005 by a grant from Kaiser Permanente aimed at combating child obesity. Since its start, the program gained popularity, took a broader focus, and forged many strategic partnerships with Coastside farmers, businesses and the larger community.
By 2007, the agricultural program began in El Granada and Farallone View elementary schools, and HEAL board members sought to continue expanding to include more programs at other Coastside schools.
But like so many other educational projects, HEAL’s ambitions had to be scaled back in the crippling recession. Large philanthropic associations — the HEAL program’s main funding sources — all drastically cut back grants to the program for this year, leaving directors scrambling to keep the program operational.
PTOs at Farallone View and Hatch both were able to contribute additional thousands to keep the program sustained for students, albeit with some reductions. But HEAL instructor positions at both schools were cut back to keep down costs.
For their part, parent leaders at El Granada Elementary have been somewhat skeptical of the value of the program, given limited funds this year to put toward art, music, science, P.E. and other programs. The school PTO declined to allocate money to the program last spring.
“We’re thinking we might not have HEAL this year,” said Liz Kallinsky, co-president of the El Granada PTO. “Sustainability of this program is a big concern. But that’s a big chunk of money for us to apply.”
Kallinsky said HEAL funding has been a moving target. Last year, funding HEAL required about $2,300, but this year the program would cost $5,000. Given that drastic increase, Kallinsky said PTO parents questioned whether the program was worthwhile.
The full PTO will discuss HEAL funding again during its meeting next week.
HEAL directors are currently hoping the program can be rejuvenated if a few lucrative grants come through, such as a $35,000 proposal to the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Directors say they have already lowered most costs by hiring four workers from the AmeriCorps. Those workers can provide needed labor for a reduced cost.
Wasilewski says that HEAL fulfills a vital role for Coastside students that is not filled through their regular curriculum. Unlike any other school district in the county, Cabrillo students are learning how to farm sustainably and eat well. Dozens of students at school are taking their gardening beyond the class structure and are participating in school gardening clubs — an extracurriculuar group unheard of at other Bay Area schools.
“This is the only part of San Mateo County that still has agriculture and that's an important learning tool that we have,” Wasilewski said. “It’s really profound. Kids are learning to eat their vegetables. That seems trivial, but this spreads to the whole community.”