Berkeley Food Network tackles hunger, nutrition insecurity

photo of a food bank
Nick Quinlan/Staff
The Berkeley Food Network serves up to 6,500 individuals a week, which is about 5,000 more than before the pandemic in February 2020.

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After an influx of people looking for free meals during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Berkeley Food Network is considering tackling “nutrition insecurity,” in addition to fighting hunger.

Sara Webber, the organization’s executive director and co-founder, said she and three others founded the Berkeley Food Network in 2016. In February 2020, she said the organization served about 1,500 people a week.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Webber added that the organization saw a sudden influx in visitors, jumping to 5,000 visitors per week in just six weeks. That number has since climbed to 6,500. However, due to food shortages, the organization initially struggled to source food.

“We just really scrambled to get food from any source we could, and interestingly, one of the sources was the Edible Schoolyard Project,” Webber said. “They were just about to start harvesting all these great foods, but the schools were closed down, so they decided they would give all their produce to us.”

The Berkeley Food Network also found sources in farms that normally served high-end restaurants, according to Webber.

Currently, the Berkeley Food Network relies heavily on volunteer work. Berkeley resident Heather Ball, who has volunteered with the network since its founding, recognized the community’s positive reaction to the organization.

“The (Berkeley) Food Network is doing such good and necessary work,” Ball said. “I don’t think that the goal of getting people food has changed. There’s just a constant evolution of doing things more efficiently.”

But for Webber, fighting hunger is not enough. Currently, she also wants to address what she refers to as “nutrition insecurity.”

“It’s not impossible to make sure that anyone who needs access to free healthy food can get it,” Webber said. “Our goal is to make it easy, nonstigmatizing and really convenient.”

While the network’s initial goal was to focus on global food distribution, Webber said the organization now hopes to introduce nutrition into its model, a decision partly inspired by working with seniors.

“We work with the city of Berkeley’s services to provide food to seniors who participate in their senior center program, and we just discovered that those partnerships have a lot more depth than we imagined,” Webber said.

She said that upon implementation, leaders discovered that visitors were socializing and helping each other develop healthy eating habits.

Webber cited an inequitable distribution of healthy food, adding that it would be to everyone’s benefit if everyone in the community has access to nutritious food.

“We’re thinking about nutrition insecurity — not hunger insecurity,” Webber said. “It’s easy to find cheap food and calories, but we want to change that way of thinking and think more in terms of nutrition and long-term health.”

Kavya Gupta is an academics and administration reporter. Contact her at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @kavyaguptta.