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‘A political act’: Activists use food as medium for advocacy

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Many of Berkeley's food organizations took inspiration from historic mutual aid programs.


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APRIL 13, 2023

Through various programs attempting to address Berkeley’s food insecurity, organizations both on and off campus utilize their advocacy to highlight issues in the greater food system.

The Berkeley Food Pantry is among these organizations and was founded during a time of turbulence, in 1969. Dharma Galang, the pantry’s director, noted that many nonprofits the pantry’s founder included were reacting to a need in the community, as they noticed many students demonstrating on campus ending up houseless and hungry.

“The free speech movement, that initial group of homeless youth that came through, they were thinking that things would change and that would go away. That didn’t 100% go away — we still have a huge homeless population,” Galang said. “The pantry’s activism never stopped, it just continued. That was the commitment to everyone involved in it: as long as there was this mismatch, this pantry would be a part of the social services and help bridge that gap.”

Galang noted that the pantry’s involvement in addressing food insecurity ties into activism in the sense that food insecurity is a human-made problem, as it is all about the distribution of wealth and food. She added that it would be simplistic to say that the problem simply stems from the inability of everyone to grow their own food, and it is actually much more complex.

The Berkeley Food Pantry tries to promote sustainability by providing people with groceries from urban farms and selling the food that grocers give to them that would otherwise go to waste, as they need to be sold for immediate consumption, Galang noted. She added that the ideal situation would be for everyone to grow what they eat, as that would be sustainable. However, the food system does not make that possible.

“Essentially we’re putting a bandaid, our food isn’t going to solve our problem,” Galang said. “Activism is really trying to bring attention to the root causes and advocating that there should be change.”

J. Noven, the executive director of the Berkeley Food Collective, noted that the current food system raises food prices to exorbitant levels because of corporate grocery stores’ profiteering. They noted that because the collective is not for profit, they are able to resist this profiteering and provide affordable groceries to their community.

In addition to providing groceries with membership discounts, Noven noted that the collective also provides education to its members. They host workshops on 1:1 organizing conversations, power mapping and conversations on what it means to organize a food business. Noven noted that these workshops can take place once the material needs of their members are met.

“The food collective operates as something of a mutual aid program. You can see this coming from a long legacy of many different community traditions … going all the way back to the indigenous times and pre-colonization,” Noven said. “Folks were using the sharing of food to come together over the practices they needed to build up societies, and that has continued through the modern era.”

Noven noted that the collective took inspiration from the mutual aid work of people like Fannie Lou Hamer and the Black Mutual Aid Society. Collin Doran, chef and owner of Homemade Cafe, was similarly inspired by the Black Panther party’s free breakfast program when creating his “Everybody Eats” program.

Doran has been unofficially running this program, which customers took notice of and appreciated. Doran thus established the official “Everybody Eats” program in January and made it a bigger part of focus at the restaurant. People who cannot afford a meal can come into the restaurant and will be provided a free meal, with no questions asked.

“My feeling personally especially in a country that has so much wealth overall that it is a basic human right and need to be able to have shelter, food and medical care, and that is not done in this society and country,” Doran said. “So it’s always been my view and I have control because I have a restaurant and in my little neighborhood that I can hopefully have an effect and have that not be the case in my corner of the world.”

According to Farmer Sama, who is starting her own farm to grow Iranian heritage crops, food activism doesn’t just come in the form of addressing food insecurity. Sama noted that food activists also work on labeling policies around GMO and chemically treated foods, amongst other things.

Sama also noted that the way people define what constitutes food activism depends on an individual’s upbringing, opinions and the people they trust or distrust.

“My personal two cents on food activism is currently about the right that we have to access our cultural foods and crops in diaspora. We live on stolen land, and we take western and European food for granted every day, often in the place of foods that raised our ancestors for time immemorial,” Sama said in an email. “To not pursue a relationship with those foods is to fold to the pressure of assimilation and the dominant hegemony. Eating your heritage foods is a political act.”

Contact Sandhya Ganesan at 


APRIL 13, 2023