Occupy food: College co-op advocates gather in Berkeley

Students enjoy homemade food and create community. Photo: courtesy CoFED

Taking matters beyond burritos, pizza, and beer, a boot camp for college food activists from across the country kicks off today at Berkeley Student Cooperative‘s Cloyne Court Hotel. The intensive, three-day retreat is designed to help train students who want to run campus co-op food cafés and stores stocked with wholesome foods for college kids seeking something other than a steady diet of fast food.

The event, dubbed “Occupy Your Plate,” is sponsored by the year-old Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive (CoFED), a Berkeley-based program that was inspired by the launch of the Berkeley Student Food Collective (BSFC), across the street from campus on Bancroft Way. Speakers at the training include People’s Grocery executive director Nikki Henderson; cookbook author Mollie Katzen; CoFED supporters include Cal professor and author Michael Pollan.

We spoke with CoFed co-founder and UC Berkeley graduate Yoni Landau — who was instrumental in getting the BSFC up and running and, in 2009, lead a protest to keep the Chinese fast-food chain Panda Express off campus — about what’s cooking with the CoFED crew this weekend and in 2012, which has been dubbed the International Year of Cooperatives by the United Nations.

What were some highlights from CoFED’s first year?

At the University of Seattle students secured a rent-free café space for a co-op cafe in their nutrition sciences department. At UC Santa Barbara, students received funds for a mobile-powered solar food cart. And at George Washington University in DC, CoFED training attendees won the top student enterprise grant on campus. These things happened within six months of these students being inspired to start a food co-op at a CoFED training.

Raising our first 200k, having Forbes.com list us as one of the top five ideas in food and sustainability, a Huffington Post nod, and electing the dream team board of directors was also pretty great.

Probably the most lasting highlight: when we had a one word, “how do you feel” check-out at the end of our very first workshop and the quiet kid said, “inspiregized.”

CoFED co-founder Yoni Landau. Photo: courtesy CoFED

Who is coming to the training this weekend?

College students from all over the U.S. and Canada who want to learn how to create cooperative, sustainable food enterprises will attend. They are grad students and freshmen, economics majors, geography majors, sustainable agriculture majors and nutrition sciences majors. For the most part, they are ambitious, idealistic and won’t take no for an answer. They want to help the world around them get to a great big “yes.”

Why hold the training here in Berkeley?

If you want to learn how to play jazz, you go to New York — it’s not like that’s the only place that jazz is played. Berkeley is an incubator for the food movement.

Can you give us an update on the Berkeley Student Food Collective?

Sales have steadily grown at the new storefront towards break-even, leadership has turned over, the education and event planning is thriving.  Maybe most surprising: several fridges broke in the first month the store was open. At its November fundraising gala (and one-year anniversary for the store) over 100 people dropped 50 bucks a head to watch students sing the food co-op fundraising song (mainly a capella). They rule.

Are there other successful food co-ops on campuses around the country?

There are over two dozen examples on campuses in the US and Canada. Maryland’s Food Collective is one of our favorites. It’s been running since the ’70s, does over $700,000 in sales annually, and is a thriving part of the campus “scene.” Students can volunteer for an hour to get a local, organic lunch — it’s a low barrier of entry into the community.

How is CoFED funded?

Last year we got 115 people to commit to giving 10 or more dollars a month and it was a large part of our funding.  This year we’re going to triple that with 212 new monthly donors.

Much of the non-profit industrial complex will come down with crony capitalism. If we’re looking to create a new world, we have to build it on foundations that are aligned with our ends. Too many non-profits are stuck in foundation worship mode — it’s a death stroke if you ask me. Not that I’m not grateful, and I love spending time with these people, they’re usually pretty wonderful.

But in five years, we plan to be primarily funded by monthly supporters and the ownership shares paid by our members.

Berkeley's student co-op is across the street from campus on Bancroft Way. Photo: courtesy BSFC

What, exactly, is going to happen over the weekend and what do you hope to achieve?

The magic that happens at these things is hard to pin down — young people leave changed. Part of that is the weird eye contact exercise and part of it is finally finding that community of real peers that they may never have had before. Part of it is definitely learning basic accounting and business planning. Our goal is to help students leave with the inspiration and tools to create the change they want to see on their campus in the form of a cooperative, sustainable food enterprise.

What does “Occupy Your Plate” mean to you?

By occupy, we mean to remove what we don’t like and create what we do like. Western, secular culture is the first human culture to lose its dinner-table rituals. Thousands of years of cementing cultural norms over food are basically gone with us. Bringing back gratitude, honesty and empathy to our most basic social function — eating with loved ones — is the most important thing we can do to shift our culture in a holistic way.

The occupy movement has reinspired us, or me at least. It hasn’t always been easy to make every decision based on my highest values; you want to take short cuts. My friends sleeping in the cold are reminders that you can’t take shortcuts to create a more democratic, just and sustainable world. You just have to do it.

There’ll be more on CoFED’s occupy stuff coming soon — here’s a hint though, we’re being outdone by Istanbul.

In the video below Landau discusses CoFED’s mission on college and university campuses across the country.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook. 

Related:
Berkeley Student Food Collective opens for business [11.15.10]
Berkeley Bites: Berkeley Student Food Collective [08.10.10]
Berkeley Bites: Mollie Katzen [03.05.10]
Nikki Henderson: On the frontlines of edible education [08.19.11]

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  • Berkeley Woman

    This sounds like a wonderful, revolutionary movement! When I first came to Berkeley in the ’60s, the Co-ops on Shattuck, Telegraph and University avenues were not just stores where healthy and unusual food was available. They were meeting places, community centers and educational institutions which taught many of us so much about food and healthy eating. As I pass the empty Andronico’s stores in Berkeley I muse about how great  it would be to have them evolve as Co-ops for the 21st century. Perhaps the owners of these huge white elephants would be willing to lease them for a nominal cost, at least until the operators could afford to pay more. I know it’s just a dream……but the Occupy Movement has given me hope that this new generation will pick up the banner for transformation that we dropped somewhere along the line.

  • http://www.filmgecko.net Jane Boursaw

    Occupy Your Plate – Love it!

  • Momo

    Check out an article about the collective business model and the Berkeley Student Food Collective! http://calibermag.org/articles/a-collective-experience/