Berkeley Student Food Collective: Education & Eating

by Sarah Henry on October 8, 2010 · 23 comments

in bay citizen,berkeley bites,civil eats,food businesses,food politics

It seems unthinkable that the People’s Republic of Berkeley has existed without a food co-operative for more than two decades. Well, try not to choke on your non-GMO, organic, fair trade, soymilk chai latte, but the co-op is coming back to Berkeley.

The Consumer’s Cooperative of Berkeley was the place to shop for the politically correct for 51 years. It opened in the heart of the Depression, when families came together to form buying clubs so they could afford to put food on the table.

In its heyday in the 1970s, the store was a national leader in championing organics, whole grains, preservative-free foods, and meat alternatives. During the boycott of non-union vineyards in the 1980s some members boasted their children had never eaten grapes.

The last store closed in 1988, a victim of partisan infighting, financial woes, and changing times: the co-op still dispensed tofu puffs and six kinds of sprouts but refused to carry radicchio, according to the New York Times.

Later this month, the Berkeley Student Food Collective, will open a University of California student-run food store on Bancroft Way — right across the street from Cal — to feed the minds, souls, and bodies of students, staff, and the surrounding community.

The new co-op, slated to carry “fresh, local, healthy, environmentally sustainable, and ethically produced food at affordable prices” (got all that?), grew out of a protest for plans to allow the first national fast food chain, Panda Express, at the university last year.

Students, outraged that orange chicken could become a campus staple, got that idea nixed, raised around $100K for the co-op, and filed for non-profit status to set itself up as an edible education hub. Not too shabby.

Food options close to campus, say students, are too often of the carbo-laden, junk-food variety. And the university, smack bang in the middle of a city that birthed California cuisine and a burgeoning food and farming movement, does a poor job, they say, integrating such food for thought into the campus culture and curriculum.

The collective, they hope, will fill that void.

I spoke with Justina Byrne, 19, a Cal freshman and collective outreach coordinator who lives in Berkeley Student Cooperative housing, and South Berkeley resident Brighid O’Keane, 28, program director and the only full-time, paid organization member, in the freshly-painted storefront this week.

What kind of support is there for the collective?

Justina: More than 300 people signed a statement of support for the business, including UC Berkeley professor Michael Pollan.

Brighid: We’ve had tremendous support from the wider community: People on our advisory board like Jaques Kaswan of Arizmendi Association of Cooperatives, offered words of wisdom and inspiration, asked the hard questions, and advised us to start slow. The university is behind us: We got our biggest grant ($91,000) from the university’s Green Initiative Fund and the building we’re in is owned by UC. David Fogarty in the city’s Office of Economic Development has been very helpful, as has the Alameda County Small Business Development Center. The Berkeley Student Cooperative is our fiscal sponsor.

An architect is reviewing the student-designed plans for the interior and students and staff from the Boalt Hall School of Law helped us with our business plan and the paperwork for our 501 3C [non-profit] status. We want this to be a living classroom around food.

What kinds of community education activities does the co-op have planned?

Brighid: Next Wednesday we’re screening the recently-released food documentary Fresh on the steps of Sproul Plaza. And on Friday, October 22 collective co-founder Yoni Landau will be part of a panel discussion at the David Brower Center on navigating food choices in today’s economy, along with good food advocate Marion Nestle and chef Narsai David.

How is the collective different from The Local, the produce stand on Sproul Plaza?

Brighid: We’re kindred spirits. Like The Local, we’ll source our produce from local, sustainable farmers, and we’re run in a collective manner. The Berkeley Student Food Collective will also sell grab-and-go foods like sandwiches and soups, as well as dry goods and healthcare products. We want to be a central meeting place for all the student organizations that focus on food to come together to discuss food issues. And we’ll run workshops, panel discussions, and community education events.

Justina: The Local is open one afternoon a week. We’ll be open 9-7 every day, and serve the local community as well as the UC community.

How are decisions made about the store’s food?

Brighid: We have food criteria that follow the guidelines of the Real Food Challenge. We have a food committee that makes those choices. We do taste testings and make decisions based on consensus. The baked goods tastings are popular.

Will the collective make its own food or source from outside distributors?

Brighid: Eventually we want to make all our own prepared foods. But we have to find kitchen space to do that; our store is too small to include a food prep area. So initially, we’ll have to outsource our grab-and-go items. We know there is demand for student-made food: Last year, to spread the word about what we’re doing, we made sandwiches and sold them on campus. We’d sell out — we’d make maybe 75 sandwiches — in an hour.

Where do you like to eat in town?

Justina: I eat almost all my meals at home. Students make all the food, they’re cooking for about 150 people in the cooperative.  The meals are mixed, it’s hard to make food for that many people. The produce is really good, it comes from organic farmers. But sometimes the food is cold when it should be hot, or burned. You get to know who can cook.

Brighid: I eat at the Cheeseboard Pizza Collective at least once a week, they have good jazz too. I like the vibe at the Guerrila Cafe; it serves good coffee and simple, delicious food without a lot of hype.  The space at Local 123 is great, I love that they have an internet-free zone, and I’m fond of their sandwiches.

(Logo designed by Molly McCoy, photo of Justina Byrne and Brighid O’Keane: Sarah Henry, Photo of students eating sandwiches: Kaitlyn Rorke)

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside and was republished on Civil Eats and The Bay Citizen.

You might also like:

Michael Pollan Talks Food Rules in San Francisco
Berkeley Bites: Keba Konte, Guerilla Cafe
Learning to Love the ‘Hood on Foot: One Edible Adventure at a Time

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

MarthaAndMe October 8, 2010 at 9:55 am

My daughter is a college student and I know she would love it if something like this opened near her campus. As it is she has a choice of university food service, a Mexican fast food place, a coffee shop, and a sushi bar.

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Sarah Henry October 8, 2010 at 12:29 pm

Alas it sounds like your daughter is having a typical college eating experience, M&Me.

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Jennifer Margulis October 8, 2010 at 10:48 am

I used to shop at a tiny natural foods store in Berkeley (on MLK). They only sold whole foods, mostly in big barrels. It was a wonderful place. I think this co-op is a fabulous idea.

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Sarah Henry October 8, 2010 at 12:30 pm

Don’t think that place still exists, Jennifer, when were you here?

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Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi October 8, 2010 at 10:48 am

I would have loved something like this during my university and grad school days. It was so hard to find decent food on campus or nearby!
Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..Drawbridge for Castle Cluckalot

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Sarah Henry October 8, 2010 at 12:31 pm

You’re not alone, Melanie, in your sentiment regarding uni food.

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Susan October 8, 2010 at 2:33 pm

You know … my alma mater (Boston University) was big enough that they catered to all kinds of dietary needs: kosher (which had a separate dining hall), vegetarian, vegan, etc. I was pretty happy that there was a different vegetarian entree at every meal, plus a good-sized salad bar so I didn’t have to live on burritos and pizza (though I did succumb to the temptation of a midnight slice of pizza at times). But just eight years ago, nobody seemed to ask where the food came from. I suspect it was probably heavily processed flown in from across the country. Very cool that Berkeley will have a food co-op again!

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Sarah Henry October 9, 2010 at 7:03 am

You raise a good point Susan: I think asking where your food comes from is something that has become increasingly more common in the past 8-10 years as people have become more cognizant of the myriad issues surrounding farming and food production.

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MyKidsEatSquid October 9, 2010 at 11:02 am

That is surprising that at UC Berkley they’ve been without a co-op for so long. I’m glad they’re bringing it back. Like Melanie I recall the food during my undergrad/grad days was pretty bad. It probably would have been a lot better to survive on some farm-fresh products versus top ramen.

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Sarah Henry October 9, 2010 at 11:15 pm

Ah, top ramen, Rice-A-Roni, mac&cheese, tuna all-in: The stuff of student life for many. But a farm-fresh salad, stir fry, or pasta dish pretty easy to whip up too.

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Christine @ Origami Mommy October 9, 2010 at 2:30 pm

I remember how hard it was to find good food as an undergraduate (and graduate student). There were a few small coops in Ithaca, NY, where I spent part of my undergraduate and graduate years, but mostly I had to find other like-minded foodies to cook together with. I would have loved something like this.
Christine @ Origami Mommy´s last [type] ..Paper dolls

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Sarah Henry October 9, 2010 at 11:18 pm

Curious to know, Christine, what you like-minded food folk cooked when you got together for a meal during your student days.

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Alisa Bowman October 9, 2010 at 4:05 pm

I wish the good works you are all doing in your area would spill out and grow and infect the surrounding areas and eventually reach Pennsylvania.
Alisa Bowman´s last [type] ..How to Stay Positive

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Sarah Henry October 9, 2010 at 11:17 pm

Why Alisa, just today at a food bloggers conference in SF I met the coolest canners from your fair state. Doing super cool things on the preserving front. Stay tuned.

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merr October 10, 2010 at 8:41 am

I remember one co-op from my college days (a cough, cough, bit of time ago!), but it was mostly filled with bins of raw grains, and a few carob bars (as I recall it)! There was probably more, but that’s what sticks in my mind.
merr´s last [type] ..The 5-Question Author Interview- Susan Henderson

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Sarah Henry October 11, 2010 at 9:28 am

Methinks, merr, co-ops have come along way since (cough) your college days;)

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Sheryl October 11, 2010 at 11:26 am

Impressive! If something like this had existed back in my college days, I would have gone to the dining hall willingly – and emerged better-fed, too.

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Sarah Henry October 18, 2010 at 7:26 am

I think many of our generation feel the same way, Sheryl. I know some former students who managed to survive on a diet that mostly consisted of Top Ramen, pizza, and beer.

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