Berkeley Student Farms helps return to in person with food donations

Photo of Berkeley student farms
Moe Sumino/Courtesy

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With few in-person opportunities to meet fellow students during her freshman year, UC Berkeley sophomore Gaby Cohen found herself drawn to Berkeley Student Farms, or BSF.

Volunteering at the Student Organic Gardening Association, one of BSF’s seven student-led farms, allowed Cohen to find a community as passionate about food sovereignty, decolonization and environmentalism as she was, Cohen said. She now serves as a BSF facilitator and helps oversee the gardens.

BSF volunteers are expecting an especially large fall harvest at Student Organic Gardening Association this coming semester, according to Cohen. The crops will allow them to continue alleviating student food insecurity by donating to the campus Food Pantry, a division of the Basic Needs Center.

“We’re being really clear (that) anyone can come and it’s open to everyone and trying to draw people in,” said Tasneem Khalak, campus sophomore and BSF facilitator. “(We’re also) working with other organizations in doing group events because that was something that was more difficult to do during the pandemic.”

Typically, BSF donates most of its produce to the Food Pantry, where it is distributed to students for free, according to Khalak. She added that BSF played a key role in sustaining the pantry throughout the pandemic during the 2020-21 school year.

This semester, BSF has been donating to the Food Pantry less frequently, focusing instead on providing food for an increasing number of in-person events, according to Cohen.

These events have included the Coalition for a Truly Public UC’s disorientation event in October and Sproutside Lands, a fundraiser for Planting Justice that took place Friday, according to Cohen.

“The work BSF does and the food that is provided has been really critical in the past and it’s still really critical now. As more people are coming the demand is increasing,” Khalak said. “By donating all the food that we grow, it’s all going back to the students. It’s all going back to the community.”

Cohen said BSF hopes to “rekindle” its relationship with the Food Pantry in the upcoming semester. She added that its goal is to ensure that the produce is given to those who need it.

The presence of more students on campus this semester has led to a flood of new volunteers, according to Cohen. Members are working on shifting from virtual to in-person meetings.

Khalak noted, however, the return to an in-person semester has come with challenges. She said the demand for produce has increased despite the size of BSF’s farms staying the same. Students who now have more commitments have also found it difficult to volunteer as often as they did in the past.

“(We’re) providing people a place to have respite from the normal kind of the hustle and bustle urban type stuff, giving people a place to relax that’s removed from that,” Khalak said. “That has very much stayed the same, but now how we’re doing that has changed.”

BSF has been working to develop a seed bank, according to Cohen. She said she hopes this long-term project will allow BSF to spend less money on new seeds, thus becoming more self-sustaining in future years.

Khalak noted that BSF strives to provide a space for students to relax and connect with the land. They are working to fulfill this vision through an award from the campus Wellness Fund. She added that volunteering at the gardens has been important to her overall mental health.

“Most people don’t have time to think about where their food comes from,” Khalak said. “There’s this general underlying theme of community and trying to make people feel comfortable and happy while also doing this really important work.”

Contact Emma Taila at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @emmataila.