Building our fair campus food system

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Franchesca Spektor/Staff

UC Berkeley is experiencing an unprecedented surge of interest in food. Our campus is a complex and dynamic food system, responsible for meeting the needs of more than 41,000 students, 1,500 faculty, 8,800 staff members and 750 lecturers. And yet, as passion for food and justice grows across campus, many still encounter major obstacles to diverse, equitable and inclusive participation in the campus food system.

Led by the Berkeley Food Institute since 2015, the Building Equitable and Inclusive Food Systems at UC Berkeley project has brought together more than 150 collaborators from across campus to help bridge the gaps between our campus food system and the communities it serves. The resulting UC Berkeley Foodscape Map offers rich data on the structural factors affecting our food system, with the goal of overcoming such obstacles. Last week, we launched a policy report for feedback.

Some examples show the variety of equity and inclusion issues on campus. Through site surveys and interviews, we found that none of the agricultural gardens on campus complied with the 2010 Americans with Disabilities Act Standards for Accessible Design. Moreover, physical, financial and knowledge barriers foster exclusion in agricultural/food research and field-based education.

As one undergraduate student said, “There have been experiences in my education where I feel uncomfortable because the environment is physically or socially inaccessible, making me question whether or not I belong in science.”

As of spring 2018, close to 50 eateries are open for business on campus, divided into residential dining and restaurants (the majority of which are leased). Cal Dining runs 38 percent of campus eateries and upholds high sustainability standards; leased dining facilities are not subject to the same standards. Cal Dining has 350 food service staff members. Employees working more than 50 percent time at Cal Dining-run facilities enjoy UC Berkeley’s full benefits package and belong to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299 union, yet they are currently working without a contract and have a strike planned for May 7-9. Cal Dining’s 540 part-time student workers are not eligible for benefits and are not union-represented. Nor are leased dining employees, who work for private companies.

A troubling trend is toward corporate-run eateries. Eight out of 26 leased dining facilities on campus are run by Chartwells and Bon Appétit, subsidiaries of Compass Group, the largest food service company in the world. Compass Group has faced numerous scandals. The ASUC’s decision in spring 2018 to temporarily replace Chartwells with pop-up eateries featuring graduates of the La Cocina incubator kitchen was a hopeful step toward diversifying campus eating options.

Students are attending school in a region that is one of the most expensive because of skyrocketing housing prices. This situation forces many students to choose between housing, tuition and food. Their academic performance and mental/physical health can suffer gravely. The 2016 UC Student Food Access and Security Study found that 39 percent of undergraduate and 23 percent of graduate students at UC Berkeley experienced either “low” or “very low” food security. Food service workers, custodial staff and others among UC Berkeley’s lowest-paid workers face similar conditions.

In response, the Basic Needs Security Committee created a suite of programs. As of spring 2018, we are seeing 2,500 visits to the campus pantry per month, as well as 750 students enrolled in CalFresh.

The fraternities and sororities are an important yet little-known part of the campus food system. About 3,600 (or 12 percent) of Berkeley undergraduate students participate in Greek life. In 2018, we surveyed the food experience of Greek members. Data suggests that the four Greek councils vary enormously in their housing and dining structures.

The two councils for students of color — the Multi-Cultural Greek Council and the National Pan-Hellenic Council (historically Black chapters) — do not have houses, whereas the vast majority of Panhellenic Council, or PHC, and Interfraternity Council, or IFC, chapters do. That sororities and fraternities for students of color have no houses points to a structural inequality in the Greek system that affects the access students of color have to food, whether through house meal plans or the availability of house kitchens in which to prepare their own meals.

PHC has mandatory meal plans that feature full in-house dining. PHC members were satisfied with their house food but thought the meal schedules weren’t convenient for them, and they were concerned about the healthfulness of their food choices. Ninety-three percent reported they did not have access to their house kitchen. A student said: “I would love to be able to cook my own food in our kitchen. That would drastically improve my meal quality and the frequency of meals that I eat.”

By contrast, 28 out of 30 fraternities in the IFC have optional housing, yet none have full-service dining. Some IFC chapters use Cal Dining meal plans, and others have a few meals per week prepared by a professional cook or have mobile app-based discounts with local restaurants. Almost 50 percent of IFC survey respondents said they wished their house had a meal plan and that they would be willing to pay higher fees to support this.

Clearly, our campus food system still has a long way to travel before it meets our Principles of Community. We recommend the formation of a UC Berkeley Food Policy Council to advise the chancellor and her cabinet. Food can bring us closer together during a fractured and tempestuous national climate. By getting our kitchen in order, we can help build a successful campus food system that inspires universities and colleges across the country.

Alastair Iles is a professor in the campus Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management; Rosalie Z. Fanshel is program manager at the Berkeley Food Institute.