Nicholas Alexander has “grown up on himself,” learning to cook while navigating the foster care system. As a UC Berkeley student, Alexander would host dinner parties at his residence. Now, he cooks meals for the residents of People’s Park.
In March, Alexander said he opened a physical kitchen in People’s Park and has been serving meals, snacks, coffee and more to the park’s unhoused community since. The structure, built by Alexander himself, was painted during a community event and contains a storage area and main kitchen
“There is an increased need for food security in Berkeley,” said campus senior Aidan Hill, former vice chair of the Berkeley Homeless Commission, in an email. “People’s Park used to have numerous religious and community organizations who would serve food in the Park before quarantine occurrs. Now its more sporadic.”
Alexander said he tries to provide one substantive meal around lunchtime or the evening, depending on the number of donations he receives. Typically, he might cook barbecued chicken or pork, tri-tip, pulled pork, tacos or other hot meals. By 5 p.m., Alexander “taps out” and locks the kitchen up for the day.
To keep the main kitchen secure at night, Alexander said he drills its door shut when he leaves.
Though Alexander is the only cook currently working in the kitchen, he added that community members have stopped by the kitchen to help clean. Community members also bring in baked goods for the kitchen, and a local bakery donates its day-old breakfast food.
“When you create a service which people depend on, there needs to be consistency that no one person can do themselves,” Hill said in the email.
Hill added that they are a member of East Bay Food Not Bombs, a volunteer collective that serves vegan meals in Berkeley and Oakland. The organization, which has been operating since 1991, is working to protect People’s Park and its gardens, Hill added.
According to its website, East Bay Food Not Bombs serves hot food five days a week in People’s Park. Volunteer-based groups serving meals in People’s Park also serve the greater community, and as a result, cannot establish semipermanent residences within the park itself, according to Hill.
Hill expressed concerns about the semipermanent kitchen’s hygiene and safety, noting that plant-based meals can help prevent disease in outdoor settings but that the kitchen “primarily focuses on serving meat.”
Campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof echoed Hill’s thoughts.
“The University is deeply concerned that food is being prepared and served in the park without the Health Department permits and oversight required by the law,” Mogulof said in an email. “This is but one of the unlawful activities that are posing a threat to the health and safety of the people in the park.”
Alexander said he has been considering investing in a food truck, which would “negate” many health concerns and increase his capacity to make food. However, the People’s Park Committee, whose donations help finance the kitchen, does not have the funds to support a food truck.
The committee, which accepts donations via its Venmo, @pparkberk, receives about $1,000 to $2,000 a year, he added.
Alexander noted that he is aware that his kitchen will be shut down once campus commences construction on its plans to build student and supportive housing on People’s Park.
“The university comes almost, like a ritual, every Tuesday to remind me that they’re going to destroy the kitchen and that I should save whatever I can,” Alexander said. “If they sweep, the kitchen will be destroyed.”
Alexander added that the main part of the kitchen was built in a day and that if the structure is destroyed, it would be possible to engage in a “Sisyphean struggle” with campus, though he said he has no concrete plans to move forward if this occurs.
Mogulof explained that once construction begins, campus will not leave the park’s residents to “fend for themselves.” Campus is working to support the unhoused community and believes that there is an “ample” food supply for them, according to Mogulof.
Hill, however, said they believe that the park’s unhoused community does not have an adequate supply of food.
“People deserve three meals a day and the cost of food is skyrocketing across the country,” Hill said in the email. “Food Security is not just about food being prepared for others. Its about learning how to grow your own food, use it, and having it readily accessible without intervention.”
Aditya Katewa also contributed to this article.