Feeding thought in five courses: How UC Berkeley’s food DeCals are serving students something beyond ‘the special’

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27 spots. One kitchen. Campus seniors and head facilitators Julie Lum and Sara Tran knew they would be feeding a growling wish on campus for food education when they started their course, “Introduction to Cooking,” this semester. Yet, Lum and Tran’s class is not the only food-related class filled to the brim with students.

It is one of five fully enrolled food-related courses in the DeCal program at UC Berkeley. The campus’s DeCal program allows students to both run and take classes “on a variety of subjects, many not addressed in the traditional curriculum,” according to the program’s website.

The complete list of food DeCals on campus include “Introduction to Cooking,” “Life Skills: Intro to Baking,” “Introduction to Chocolate,” “Wild and Fermented Foods” and “TeaCAL.”

To answer the one question on everyone’s stomachs, yes, you get to eat or drink in every one of these courses.

But these classes offer more than just food sampling and typical day-to-day academia. The facilitators of the five food courses teach financial, nutritional and other kinds of life skills to their students, along with some special ingredients: lessons in sustainability, politics, culture and mental wellness. You might just learn how to make kombucha or meditate in the process. 

Through a survey conducted at the beginning of their course, Lum and Tran discovered that their students ate 60% of their meals out, only cooking about 33% of their meals themselves.

Time and convenience were the primary reasons that inhibit them from cooking,” Lum and Tran said in an email. 

Lum explained that she started the course not only because she wants to teach students how to balance costs and meet dietary restrictions, but also because she wants to encourage them to be conscious of the water and carbon footprint of food.

They explained that the majority of students cited cost-effectiveness and a wish to improve personal health as reasons for their interest in cooking. 

Lum explained that she started the course not only because she wants to teach students how to balance costs and meet dietary restrictions, but also because she wants to encourage them to be conscious of the water and carbon footprint of food.

“I think being connected to your food, being connected to your cooking, really allows you to take full control over all these elements and just be connected to what you eat,” Lum said. 

One of the ways that Lum, Tran and their six TAs make the class more cost-effective, nutritious and sustainable is by making it completely plant-based. They hope to eventually make the class vegan.  

On March 4, in the Cal Teaching Kitchen in Morgan Hall, the only instruction kitchen on campus, students in “Introduction to Cooking” were moving and shuffling about, working together and dicing vegetables to make broth. The goal: a savory cream of mushroom soup.  

Stepping briefly aside from the stove, junior Eugene Koh, an exchange student from Singapore, explained why he finds this DeCal particularly valuable. He likes the opportunity to not only learn a recipe but also make it unique to himself. 

“Going to college is not just about learning the technical skills,” Koh said. “A DeCal is a refreshing take on education, more holistic education.”  

“TeaCAL” head facilitators Shannon Hong, May Cui and Becka Shuere explained how their course broadens students’ educational experiences through the lense of consumption.   

After teaching a class serving up two types of oolong with the help of Chan Buddhist monk Da Xing Fa Shi at Universal Chan: Buddhist Zen Center on University Avenue, they explained that their course recently won the Student Environmental Resource Center’s Greener DeCal Fellowship for its efforts to promote sustainability to its students.

In “TeaCAL,” students sit in circles on the ground with everything they need to make tea in the center, cultivating an intimate relationship between them and the drink. Students must make sure they wash the tea leaves right and serve the tea in a certain way — all while being conscious of their peers sitting next to them.  

“It’s always good to be educated about (food), especially in today’s society where (it’s) sort of in a black box. We don’t see how it is made; we forget to appreciate it,” Cui said. “Not much of the food we eat, honestly, is grown sustainably. (In ‘TeaCAL,’) we learn about how the tea is made, not just what it tastes like.”   

“Wild and Fermented Foods” facilitators Shane Pauker and Sarah Espinoza are also interested in bridging the gap between growers and consumers. Each week, they teach lessons on fermentation, and Pauker plans to experiment with coffee-flavored kombucha. Later in the course, Pauker and Espinoza will teach foraging. 

Many of the students in the class seem to be on the same page as the instructors. Senior Chloe Betts, for example, wants to be a sustainable farmer in order to help the fight against climate change.

“There is pretty much a salad bar all around campus,” Betts said. “There is a lot of food available that people do not realize. I think it is important to educate people where food is coming from.” 

In addition to teaching nutrition and sustainability, “Introduction to Chocolate,” headed by seniors Kathy Ding and Medha Somayaji, helps teach the global-political implications of food in the context of the sweet.  

Ding helped start the DeCal during the spring semester of her junior year after talking about the production of chocolate from “bean to bar” with an executive from Ghirardelli Chocolate Company

As students munched on fair trade Endangered Species Chocolate’s “Almonds Sea Salt + Dark Chocolate” during a class in early March, groups of students analyzed chocolate along the lines of sustainabillity, politics and, in particular, child labor.

Sophomore Victor Garibay explained why he likes “Introduction to Chocolate.”

“What I like most about this DeCal is that it challenges you,” Garibay said. “You see the value of chocolate. … What I enjoy most is learning the history of chocolate. There is so much I did not know prior to this class.”  

Besides potentially teaching lessons in sustainability and politics, food DeCals also allow students to explore their own and different cultures through the lense of food. 

After helping teach a class that taught students about French, Italian and Swiss meringue,  Andrew Gamaley, who facilitates “Intro to Baking” with Meagan Tang — who has sold her cupcake recipes to franchises for wholesale — and Anthony Federico, explained how baking connects him to his heritage. 

“For myself, especially, I really like delving into interesting recipes. My parents are Russian, so I am learning how to make some Russian recipes,” Gamaley said. 

Shuere, a “TeaCAL” facilitator, also explained how tea created a bond between her and her mom’s family when she first visited them in China. 

Other students seek out certain food DeCals to build upon their family recipes and traditions.   

Junior David Bocanegra, a student in “Introduction to Cooking,” for example, said he signed up because he wanted to learn more cooking skills beyond his family roots. 

“I’m Hispanic, so I cook a lot of Spanish rice, you know, Mexican dishes,” Bocanegra said. “I want to learn and get out of my comfort zone and cook a wider variety of things. So far we have cooked stuff that I probably would have never cooked.” 

Food DeCals at UC Berkeley are also a way for students to feel at home and destress. 

Federico, an “Intro to Baking” instructor, explained that baking is a great way to let go of stress and is a really big comfort, especially being on your own in college. 

“I think a lot of people are used to their home-cooked meals, or sort of having that control over what you’re eating,” Federico said. “I think that being able to recreate that on your own and being able to bake something that maybe your family’s baked, or your grandma or your mom has baked, is a really good way to feel at home when you are here.”   

Junior Tom-Christian Armes was drawn to volunteer at Universal Chan with TeaCAL as a result of the DeCal’s promotion of the wellness and meditation associated with tea. He hopes to potentially become a Tibetan Buddhist monk after completing his graduate degree.

Due to the popularity of the food DeCals and their benefits, many of their facilitators want to see a greater expansion in regard to food education on campus. 

“Berkeley has some opportunities for food education on campus in the formal way, but we’re not like UC Davis or Cal Poly SLO where we have a full program dedicated to it, or even multiple programs,” Pauker said. “I think the purpose of … classes like mine are to almost fulfill the space that’s left, not being able to take home economics in most high schools anymore.” 

Lum echoed his sentiments, explaining that her lack of food education in high school inspired her to start her DeCal.

She admitted that she could not take all 300 applicants to “Introduction to Cooking,” mainly due to lack of cooking space. She added that she would like to see more culinary-based initiatives.

“I think on this campus, we are very proactive in a lot of areas, but culinary education is not one of them,” Lum said. “And from just the sheer amount of support and interest based on the application numbers, I do think that if the university has the ability to put resources into something, it should be culinary education.”

Contact Kristen Hull at [email protected]

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