Last year, the successful passage of the Student Basic Needs referendum marked a turning point for the conversation regarding food insecurity at UC Berkeley. Finally, after years of fringe, student-led advocacy, the campus was ready to acknowledge the pervasive threat food insecurity poses to our community. Despite this undeniable progress, however, our shared understanding of food insecurity remains one-dimensional.
Whenever I ask students or faculty to define what food insecurity means to them, they tell a familiar story. An individual is “food insecure” when they are forced to skip meals or are unsure of where their next meal may come from, usually due to the many financial barriers to food. While this scenario absolutely falls under the food insecurity umbrella, it represents only part of the problem and leaves out perhaps one of the most prevalent aspects of food insecurity in the Berkeley area.
It’s not just about food accessibility — it’s about nutritional accessibility. This is a nuance that many of us neglect to acknowledge because we think of food security as a black-and-white issue: you either have food or you don’t. We’ve effectively created a food security binary. And, like most binaries, when you neglect the full spectrum of the issue, you harm everyone who doesn’t fall neatly into either of the two identified options. Becoming food insecure is a gradual process that seldom happens overnight. In fact, many students who are food insecure don’t actually know that they are food insecure: they assume that, because they have access to some measure of food, they are not basic needs deficient.
Food security isn’t measured in Top Ramen or Pop-Tarts: it’s measured in access to nutritional food that sustains you throughout the day. With the recent closure of Sam’s Market, UC Berkeley students are left with approximately two options for purchasing fresh groceries near campus: the UC Berkeley Student Food Collective or Walgreens. While the collective is undoubtedly the better option, it’s decidedly less visible than Walgreens and struggles to compete with the corporation’s low prices. Since most students are unfamiliar with the collective, they generally opt to purchase their “groceries” at a branch of the second-largest pharmacy chain in America — and the Walgreens on Telegraph Avenue seems to have picked up on this influx of business. Now, just across from the picture frames, batteries and calcium supplements, you can find single eggs for purchase. Further into the store, you’ll find breakfast cereals, Lunchables and an abundance of snack options. You won’t find an abundance of fresh produce or protein, however.
It goes beyond just one grocery store. Private landlords and professional real estate brokers seem to have a vested interest in filling storefronts with low-cost operations that maximize their profits. In Berkeley, this is perhaps best exemplified by the almost satirical surplus of boba shops near campus. According to Yelp, there are at least 10 boba shops surrounding the perimeter of UC Berkeley, each within one block of the campus. Although boba shops and their proprietors are not single-handedly responsible for food insecurity in Berkeley, they seem to be emblematic of a larger, systemic problem. Substantive, nutritional eateries are slowly being displaced by chains and snack shops. We don’t need dozens of boba alternatives. We need access to affordable, healthy groceries — and that need is only going to get worse, once the ongoing housing projects are completed and Southside densifies.
As the city changes around us, it’s easy to surrender to the ebb and flow. But, when it comes to holistic food security, passivity is not an option. For campus, city and corporate stakeholders, there seems to be no protest more serious than one that interferes with their profit flow — so, shop with intention. Stop buying groceries at Walgreens and start shopping at the UC Berkeley Student Food Collective. Pick one boba place you like and stick to it so that we don’t encourage this infinite proliferation. Opt to spend money at local businesses over chains whenever possible. With our wallets, we can prove that selling more nutritious food is a profitable enterprise — one worth investing in.
Students cannot subsist off of sugar, carbs, caffeine and sodium. Slices of toast and Chef Boyardee don’t contribute to “brainpower.” Enough is enough. No more local business displacement. No more boba shops. No more excuses. Berkeley community members deserve uninhibited access to dignified, fresh food.
Teddy Lake (she/her) is a senior at UC Berkeley, a former ASUC senator, and currently serves as the campus organizing co-director for the EAVP.