Occupy Food: College Co-op Advocates Gather in Berkeley

by Sarah Henry on January 6, 2012 · 15 comments

in berkeley bites,food organizations,food politics,food security

College students enjoy homemade food and create community. Photo: Courtesy CoFED

Taking matters beyond burritos, pizza, and beer, a boot camp for college food activists from across the country kicks off today at Berkeley Student Cooperative‘s Cloyne Court Hotel. The intensive, three-day retreat is designed to help train students who want to run campus co-op food cafés and stores stocked with wholesome foods for college kids seeking something other than a steady diet of fast food.

The event, dubbed “Occupy Your Plate,” is sponsored by the year-old Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive (CoFED), a Berkeley-based program that was inspired by the launch of the Berkeley Student Food Collective (BSFC), across the street from campus on Bancroft Way. Speakers at the training include People’s Grocery executive director Nikki Henderson and cookbook author Mollie Katzen.  CoFED supporters include Cal professor and author Michael Pollan.

We spoke with CoFed co-founder and UC Berkeley graduate Yoni Landau — who was instrumental in getting the BSFC up and running and, in 2009, lead a protest to keep the Chinese fast-food chain Panda Express off campus – about what’s cooking with the CoFED crew this weekend and in 2012, which has been dubbed the International Year of Cooperatives by the United Nations.

What were some highlights from CoFED’s first year?

At the University of Seattle students secured a rent-free café space for a co-op cafe in their nutrition sciences department. At UC Santa Barbara, students received funds for a mobile-powered solar food cart. And at George Washington University in DC, CoFED training attendees won the top student enterprise grant on campus. These things happened within six months of these students being inspired to start a food co-op at a CoFED training.

Raising our first 200k, having Forbes.com list us as one of the top five ideas in food and sustainability, a Huffington Post nod, and electing the dream team board of directors was also pretty great.

Probably the most lasting highlight: when we had a one word, “how do you feel” check-out at the end of our very first workshop and the quiet kid said, “inspiregized.”

CoFED co-founder Yoni Landau. Photo: courtesy CoFED

Who is coming to the training this weekend?

College students from all over the U.S. and Canada who want to learn how to create cooperative, sustainable food enterprises will attend. They are grad students and freshmen, economics majors, geography majors, sustainable agriculture majors and nutrition sciences majors.

For the most part, they are ambitious, idealistic and won’t take no for an answer. They want to help the world around them get to a great big “yes.”

Why hold the training here in Berkeley?

If you want to learn how to play jazz, you go to New York — it’s not like that’s the only place that jazz is played. Berkeley is an incubator for the food movement.

Can you give us an update on the Berkeley Student Food Collective?

Sales have steadily grown at the new storefront towards break-even, leadership has turned over, the education and event planning is thriving.  Maybe most surprising: several fridges broke in the first month the store was open. At its November fundraising gala (and one-year anniversary for the store) over 100 people dropped 50 bucks a head to watch students sing the food co-op fundraising song (mainly a capella). They rule.

Are there other successful food co-ops on campuses around the country?

There are over two dozen examples on campuses in the US and Canada. Maryland’s Food Collective is one of our favorites. It’s been running since the ’70s, does over $700,000 in sales annually, and is a thriving part of the campus “scene.” Students can volunteer for an hour to get a local, organic lunch — it’s a low barrier of entry into the community.

How is CoFED funded?

Last year we got 115 people to commit to giving 10 or more dollars a month and it was a large part of our funding.  This year we’re going to triple that with 212 new monthly donors.

Much of the non-profit industrial complex will come down with crony capitalism. If we’re looking to create a new world, we have to build it on foundations that are aligned with our ends. Too many non-profits are stuck in foundation worship mode — it’s a death stroke if you ask me. Not that I’m not grateful, and I love spending time with these people, they’re usually pretty wonderful.

But in five years, we plan to be primarily funded by monthly supporters and the ownership shares paid by our members.

Berkeley's student co-op is across the street from campus on Bancroft Way. Photo: courtesy BSFC

What is going to happen over the weekend and what do you hope to achieve?

The magic that happens at these things is hard to pin down — young people leave changed. Part of that is the weird eye contact exercise and part of it is finally finding that community of real peers that they may never have had before. Part of it is definitely learning basic accounting and business planning. Our goal is to help students leave with the inspiration and tools to create the change they want to see on their campus in the form of a cooperative, sustainable food enterprise.

What does “Occupy Your Plate” mean to you?

By occupy, we mean to remove what we don’t like and create what we do like. Western, secular culture is the first human culture to lose its dinner-table rituals. Thousands of years of cementing cultural norms over food are basically gone with us. Bringing back gratitude, honesty and empathy to our most basic social function — eating with loved ones — is the most important thing we can do to shift our culture in a holistic way.

The occupy movement has reinspired us, or me at least. It hasn’t always been easy to make every decision based on my highest values; you want to take short cuts. My friends sleeping in the cold are reminders that you can’t take shortcuts to create a more democratic, just and sustainable world. You just have to do it.

There’ll be more on CoFED’s occupy stuff coming soon — here’s a hint though, we’re being outdone by Istanbul.

In this video Landau discusses CoFED’s mission on college campuses across the country.

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside.

You might also like:

Berkeley Student Food Collective: Education & Eating
Nikki Henderson: On the Front Lines of Edible Education
Mollie Katzen: Get Cooking Author Dishes

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

MyKidsEatSquid January 6, 2012 at 3:06 pm

Occupy your plate, that’s a cool idea. I noticed the anticipated food trends for the year are all about going local and small batches over mass-processed foods, sounds like the message is getting out.

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Sarah Henry January 6, 2012 at 5:01 pm

Agreed, MKES. I’m curious to see what happens this year with Occupy and the food movement, whether it’s #occupyyourplate, #occupyyourpantry #occupybigfood, #occupyfood, #occupythepasture, or #occupythekitchen.

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The Writer's [Inner] Journey January 7, 2012 at 7:36 am

I love this. Change does, after all, start from within.
The Writer’s [Inner] Journey´s last [type] ..The 5-Question [Author] Interview: Kayt Sukel

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Sarah Henry January 9, 2012 at 7:14 am

It will be interesting to see what this year’s batch of trainees do with the knowledge they gain from the is meet up, Meredith.

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Kerry Dexter January 7, 2012 at 8:32 am

I like the idea of a weekend retreat focused on making connections through food, and I like the idea of local sustainability. Good that they are seeing wide response, too. I think though that occupy (something) as a brand or catchword has already outlived its usefulness. Hope they will come up with another thought to identify their work.
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Sarah Henry January 9, 2012 at 7:16 am

I wondered about that too, Kerry, especially after I heard a recent story on NPR about overused words that should be put to rest and occupy was on the list.

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Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart January 7, 2012 at 2:30 pm

Oh, dear. Occupy Your Plate … made me giggle. I’m doing my best to make 2012 a ZERO pop, ZERO fast food year. Speaking of which, I need to go get some homemade pasta sauce started for dinner. OK. OK. The tomatoes come out of a can (which I know isn’t ideal), but I’m trying. ;o)
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Sarah Henry January 9, 2012 at 7:17 am

No judgment here, Rox, you’re cooking a meal at home and that counts for a lot.

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Living Large January 9, 2012 at 7:44 am

What a great initiative. It amazes me every time I read your blog about how progressive Berkeley is in reference to the good food movement.

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Sarah Henry January 10, 2012 at 5:28 pm

Yeah, well, LL, this gown town has a long history on the progressive politics front — and that includes food.

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Alisa Bowman January 9, 2012 at 2:25 pm

it’s a great idea and I hope it spreads.

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Sarah Henry January 10, 2012 at 5:28 pm

It is, Alisa. More on that coming soon.

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Jennifer Margulis January 10, 2012 at 9:02 pm

I love the idea of occupying food! We really do need to take back food in this country. Why is the concept of eating real food so radical?! Goodbye Poptarts. Hello salad!
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Sarah Henry January 13, 2012 at 8:30 pm

Well said, Jen.

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