Flash in the Pan 

Cultivating student food collectives

When I was in college, a group of people called "scroungers" hung out by the dishwashing station, intercepting students as they dropped off their trays, politely asking, "Are you done with that lasagna?" "Mind if I finish off that brownie?"

Some scrounged out of financial necessity, others for adventure and perverse glory. But most did it to help curtail the waste encouraged by the all-you-can-eat setup of the cafeteria. Ironically, the scroungers provided a buffer against the possibility of students feeling guilty for wasting food, because you could justify an overloaded tray knowing the scroungers would take care of it. So it isn't clear any waste was prevented.

And then there were the proto-foodies I called the Hippy Noodle People. Cognizant not only of the waste in the cafeteria, but also the fact that the cafeteria food sucked, they sold homemade food like noodles in peanut sauce with chopped scallions in the student union. In today's regulatory climate the Hippy Noodle People, not to mention the scroungers, would probably be chased out. But their spirits live on in a much more sophisticated and better organized, if no less idealistic, wave of college foodies.

As we're seeing in Tunisia and Egypt, it can be easier to point out what's wrong with a picture than to come up with a solution. But that doesn't make a problem any less pressing. An organization called CoFed started, as many organizations do, with a movement. And like many movements, it started with a protest—in this case, against the opening of a Panda Express fast food restaurant, in 2009, in the University of California, Berkeley, student union.

Adding symbolic oomph to the protest was the fact that the student union is named after Cesar Chavez, the famous labor organizer and founder of the United Farmworker's Union. The would-be intruder, another of Panda Express's 1,300-plus outlets, was turned away. And the students kept their momentum going by raising more than $100,000 to create the Berkeley Student Food Collective (BSFC) in late 2010. Styled like a convenience store where students can grab a quick pre-made meal or snack, BSFC is now up and running, providing clean, healthy, fair-trade, affordable food—with all of the produce grown within 150 miles of campus.

It's not surprising that this idea was born at Berkeley. Besides being a petri dish for left-leaning foodies, the university happens to be in a state blessed with a yearlong growing season. Believing they had an important model to share, BSFC organizers decided to package it for export to other colleges and universities. Thus the national Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive—CoFed for short—was born.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX

"This is a natural response of the ecosystem," says Yoni Landau, a 23-year-old recent Berkeley graduate who was part of the anti-Panda Express movement, the ensuing Berkeley Student Food Collective, and a founding member of CoFed. Landau considers himself and his fellow foodies a part of an urban, academic ecosystem capable of making adjustments to keep itself in balance. "The best thing about unsustainability is that it's unsustainable," he says.

The scroungers and the Hippy Noodle People where I went to college could be framed as a natural response of the ecosystem as well. But the Hippy Noodle People soon disbanded for other pursuits. And while the scroungers kept scrounging, they didn't really accomplish anything other than saving up some extra beer money.

Efforts such as the ones at my college suffer not only from disorganization and distraction, but also from student turnover that draws away even the most dedicated and capable. But CoFed sees turnover as an opportunity to engage a constantly renewing stream of fresh blood. And to insure against the threats to sustainability posed by inevitable attrition, CoFed plans to eventually offer regional trainings for management teams that are carefully crafted to protect both organization and procedure from the ever-shifting winds of individual personalities.

At a recent training session in Sebastapol, Calif., 30 students from 10 campuses gathered to teach and learn how to create student food collectives on their home campuses. The training was based on a newly minted, CoFed-produced manual. It's a sophisticated document tailored to the creation of student food collectives. As Landau explains, the CoFed game plan breaks the task of opening new collectives into four focus areas: people, plan, space and money. These add up to a business plan with a "triple bottom line" of people, planet, and profit designed to empower such cooperatives to hold their own against the fast food restaurants circling for student food dollars. CoFed's five-year plan aims for the creation of 35 student cooperatives across the country; a handful are already in place on various college campuses.

While not every school is located in a climate that can support the locavore candy store that California schools can, CoFed's principles are flexible enough to find a balance between principle and reality. "The seasonal local food in winter does get a little less varied in places like the Midwest," Landau explains. He says that in order to maintain enough diversity to avoid turning off customers, food would have to be shipped further to northern student food collectives in winter. "But it would still be fair trade and sustainably produced."

The possibilities for what can happen in these student collectives are wide open. Student-led workshops on food preservation and cooking, panels of local food movement leaders, organizing meetings against the next Panda Express, all could be held in the same space where they buy an affordable, organic salad and fair trade coffee for lunch.

I can only imagine that student food collectives like the ones planned by CoFed would have distracted the scroungers, absorbed the Hippy Noodle People, and perhaps put my college snack bar out of business.

More information on CoFed can be found at www.cofed.org.

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