It doesn’t take an econ major to recognize that food in Berkeley is expensive. Even if you have your own kitchen, groceries aren’t much cheaper than going out. Fast food is pricey too; the first time my dad came to visit me, he nearly lost it when he saw that Taco Bell tacos go for over three dollars each – the same tacos that he bought for 59 cents growing up.
I’ve spent too much time online researching the best ways to save money on food, but most of these websites are very cookie-cutter and usually have little relevance to my situation, so I’ve compiled a list of ways I’ve personally found cheap meals (or even snacks) that are specific to the Berkeley student.
Free food on campus
Okay, so you won’t necessarily be able to get a full meal from these on-campus spots, but I’ve saved my fair share of $5 coffee trips. The Engineering Student Center, for example, has coffee and tea available every day, as well as a plentiful supply of snacks. Platform Artspace – a hidden treasure by the law school – has complimentary coffee twice a week while you enjoy their free art exhibition.
More substantial food is less reliably available but definitely worth seeking out. At this point in the year, many Cal students have caught on to how club meetings or info-sessions offer pizza, for example. While I’ve attended an embarrassing amount of meetings solely for this purpose, it’s important to be prepared for disappointment when assuming clubs may have food. I try to go for the club itself and will just hopefully be fed.
Some of these clubs or organizations will continue to offer meals past just the first meeting. For example, I attend Hillel – a Jewish community organization – weekly for dinner. I started going because I wanted to meet my fellow Jewish students but ended up staying for the Wednesday barbeques. And no, you don’t have to identify as Jewish to attend!
Social media and email
For fuller meals, it pays to keep an eye on some key social media accounts. By following the UCB Student Union or Basic Needs Center on Instagram, for example, you can learn about free ice cream socials or food pantries. Sometimes, the free food comes to you, with email invitations from Cal (don’t unsubscribe!) to entice students to attend less-popular events.
Events hosted by Cal sponsors, such as tonight’s Roller Rink Night, offer snacks and drinks for attendees. Last year, Cal encouraged crowds at baseball and women’s basketball by offering free pizza and Mexican food, in addition to free tickets. These types of offers are often only advertised through email.
Many of my Google searches about saving money on meals led me to download food-saving apps. Although most of these are small and upcoming businesses, we are lucky enough to reap the benefits, being in the center of the innovative Bay Area. For example, Too Good to Go and OLIO are personal favorites of mine and are active in our city for saving anything from a restaurant’s leftover meals to a neighbor’s close-to-expired groceries, usually at less than a third of its retail price.
I’ve personally used these apps to buy cupcakes, taco bowls, sushi and some random groceries – to name just a few things. The one catch – you don’t know exactly what you’re getting from apps like Too Good to Go. Other than knowing where you’re buying from, the actual meals or groceries are complete surprises. If you keep an open mind, however, you’ll never be disappointed.
If you’re sick of pizza and junk food, produce and fresh food can often go for cheap prices if you know where to look. At smaller markets, such as Yasai Produce Market on College and farmer’s market vendors, irregular or less-conventionally appetizing fruits and vegetables often go for less than their better-looking counterparts.
Additionally, meat and produce that is nearing its expiration date will be cheaper, even at larger supermarkets like Trader Joe’s. If you’re willing to use these foods immediately, this trade-off is well worth it.
For the 21+ of you, happy hours and themed nights at bars are worth fighting the crowds. Taco Tuesdays at Raleigh’s or Kip’s will save you money on dinner (and drinks). Happy hour also makes some of the nicer restaurants downtown more accessible to the typical student budget. As long as you stay safe and don’t overdo it (thanks, mom), these nights can become a weekly tradition.
In summary, please don’t obsess about saving money on food as much as I do. While I highly recommend trying out some of these tricks, if you’re craving a $5 coffee every once in a while, just get a $5 coffee.