Berkeley Student Food Collective launches voucher program aimed at combating food insecurity

Sally Dowd/Staff

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The Berkeley Student Food Collective, or BSFC, a nonprofit student-run grocery store, launched a new program April 10 that will allow customers to subsidize the groceries and meals of other store patrons.

The initiative, called the “Pay it Forward” program, involves a system in which patrons can purchase vouchers worth either $1, $3 or $5, which they can then pin to the “Pay it Forward” board, located in the store. Anyone can remove up to $5 worth of vouchers from the board and use them to purchase food, produce or other groceries from the store.

The idea was initially suggested by Patty Choi, a BSFC member, in the spring 2016 semester. The collective’s Anti-Oppression Committee spent several months developing the idea, which comes as a response to the issue of food insecurity in the Berkeley community.

“Food security takes many different forms. … Sometimes people have to skip meals to pay rent, or skip meals to buy a textbook or don’t have access to a kitchen or just healthy food in general,” said Cheryl Ching, a junior and BSFC anti-oppression coordinator. “There are lots of different ways to be food insecure.”

A 2016 survey of 8,932 UC undergraduate and graduate students, conducted by the University of California Global Food Initiative, found that 19 percent of students indicated having “very low” food security, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as a reduction in food intake due to limited resources. Additionally, 23 percent of respondents were characterized as having “low” food security, which the USDA defines as reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet.

College students are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity, according to the Global Food Initiative survey, because they may lack the experience and knowledge required to effectively manage food resources. This trend, coupled with increases in tuition and costs associated with college attendance, may result in students being unable to afford access to food. Students also have to contend with restricted access to food markets and limited facilities for storing and preparing food.

“There’s been a lot of mobilization toward getting higher quality food more accessible to the public,” said Jeff Noven, BSFC operations manager.The problem is that it’s come with a corollary effect of making food more expensive, more boutique. …  For (the BSFC), food security is our primary objective, because without it, we can’t be a community grocery store.”

According to Noven, the BSFC offers approximately 100 sliding scale meals every week, which are meals prepared in the store that can be purchased by patrons for however much the customer can afford. Customers will be able to use the “Pay it Forward” vouchers to purchase sliding scale meals, with daily hot breakfast also being offered.

“I think that on the face of it, this push is an excellent step towards a collective effort to strike out food insecurity on campus,” said ASUC Senator Anthony Carrasco, who identifies as a low-income, first-generation student. “It really takes a village, and what I see is that building of a village.”

Contact Shayann Hendricks at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @shayannih.

A previous version of this article misspelled BSFC operations manager Jeff Noven’s last name.