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Food: A right or a privilege?

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MAY 12, 2014

Food access is a right. Does UC Berkeley make this right a privilege?

As communications director at the Berkeley Student Food Collective, I have had the opportunity and privilege of learning about food systems, managing a small-scale nonprofit and working with UC Berkeley administrators and surrounding communities to foster an appreciation for sustainable and ethical food systems. Having the privilege of facilitating and working with a student-dominated board of directors for the past three years has given me the opportunity to learn about how food systems affect advantaged and disadvantaged communities and how we as students have the privilege and responsibility of making food accessible.

The Berkeley Student Food Collective is located behind a pillar on Bancroft Way, right underneath the Career Center and next to the apparently popular Share Tea (in a building owned by the UC Regents). The Food Collective boasts more than 150 student and community members who volunteer in the store by cashiering, preparing our ready-to-eat foods, managing the storefront, filing taxes and performing accounting duties, and overseeing our marketing, for example. On any given day, a customer might walk into the store and see strawberries that come from a farm within an hour’s drive, a handmade kale mushroom sandwich that was just packaged by a fellow student or two refrigerators full of Oakland-brewed kombucha ranging from green tea to poached pear. The Berkeley Student Food Collective fosters a sense of shared responsibility for the food that our community eats.

When is the last time you splurged on a Clif bar on campus? An overpriced salad? A $3 bagel? If you are familiar with Cal Dining options, you might know what I mean. The food collective is far from being accessible to all, however, as Cal Dining maintains the privileging of food and food access to certain communities when jacking up their prices to make the highest profit. Because it knows that students will buy its products regardless of price, it decides to overprice its items: Cal Dining’s private control over food access is called capitalism.   The food collective is a nonprofit collective, meaning that we are completely volunteer-run: We keep the markup as low as possible because we don’t have to worry about paying employees. Some key facets of our mission include affordability and accessibility, working hard to negotiate with vendors, taking customer input and minimizing food waste to maintain the lowest prices possible. Accessibility goes beyond low pricing and includes distance to community, the option of volunteering in exchange for a discount and programs that bring cheaper farmers market produce onto campus. The food collective strives toward food accessibility, even if it isn’t perfect in its current state.

There are various issues at hand when it comes to food access. On the surface, waiters, cashiers, shelf stockers, cooks and baggers greet the consumer with a smile or conversation. Deeper down, the farmers, agricultural pickers and horticultural gardeners wake up in the wee hours of the morning to farm your berries, lettuce and coffee beans. But even those in between matter: The truck drivers, the machine factory workers and the food distributors work to bring you your food from farm to table. Food becomes accessible when we begin to acknowledge and appreciate all of the workers involved in the life from farm to table. When corporations enter the picture, that acknowledgement becomes more and more difficult to achieve, and the line of workers becomes elongated and more out of focus.

Matthew Brueckmann, a UC Berkeley undergraduate is fighting to include the corporatized In-N-Out in UC Berkeley’s plan for a renovated Lower Sproul student commerce area. What a slap in the face. Now don’t get me wrong, I too love indulging In-N-Out on occasion — grilled veggie sandwich (no sauce) with fries please — but when I see students like Brueckmann blatantly challenging fellow student groups who have been fighting for a location on campus for years by inviting multimillion dollar corporations onto campus, it really hurts. The problem isn’t In-N-Out; the problem is corporations presiding over our campus and student culture.   Although I don’t think that Cal Dining has a monopoly over food choices on campus, the idea pervades: When some of the only options are Golden Bear Cafe, Subway and Chipotle, inviting In-N-Out onto campus challenges the work of student organizations who also want to be included in UC Berkeley’s food culture.

When I envision the new Lower Sproul, I think of an open community space, a place for student organizations to thrive, a collective area where students and community members of all sorts can collaborate. I do not envision the hustle and bustle of a corporatized fast food chain. I do not envision multimillion dollar businesses kicking student organizations out of their deserved space. I do not envision nonstudent affairs controlling what students do and do not have access to. I envision the Berkeley Student Food Collective and other student organizations using the new Lower Sproul as a space for community collaboration and education.

—  If you would like to sign your name in support of the Berkeley Student Food Collective’s goal of having a location on campus, please sign here. Matthew Kirschenbaum is the communications director of the Berkeley Student Food Collective and a UC Berkeley senior. He was an opinion blogger for The Daily Californian in spring of 2013.

Contact Matthew Kirschenbaum at 

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MAY 12, 2014