By Alyssa Kies
Whisper sweet nothings to me about free-range birds and grass-fed beef; I’m enamored. I shiver with anticipation waiting for new fruits and vegetables to come into season. Allot me a tiny sample of your triple cream brie; I’ll quiver.
But I have this itching, crawling feeling that I am not like everyone.
When I heard that the Berkeley Student Food Collective (BSFC) was opening up a store on Bancroft, the possibilities teased me. Fresh, local, healthy, sustainably grown, and ethically produced foods were going to be made available to students, with the dual intention of educating and feeding the Cal community. The laundry list of catchwords got my food morality tingling. “Who wouldn’t want to shop there?” I wondered.
The average Cal student, maybe?
Hannah Burstein, a second year and the membership coordinator of the BSFC, said she wants to see a rise in food consciousness among students, referring to a certain awareness of the effects of food on the environment, the community, and the body. “Just because there’s such a strong [food] culture here doesn’t mean that it represents the majority,” Burstein said. Indeed, Berkeley serves as a food mecca, cultivating influential foodies such as Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, as well as progressive grocery stores like Berkeley Bowl and sustainable high-end restaurants like Chez Panisse.
But this food culture is not so apparent along Telegraph Avenue, where cheap food in large portions is the strip’s main draw. Hungry kids flock to greasy joints advertising starving student specials. Burstein claims that large corporations have found “an unending source of money” in profiting off of people’s dependency on food. “If the only food that’s widely available is cheap and unhealthy and unsustainable then people are still going to buy it,” she said.
The BSFC store will sell prepared foods like sandwiches and granola, as well as produce and dairy products. Each product they sell must adhere to at least one quality of the Real Food guidelines. That is, each product must be either: local, fair, ecologically sound, or humane. Local is defined as produced within 250 miles. Fair typically refers to workers’ rights, while humane refers to animal rights. Ecologically sound often refers to whether or not the food was treated with pesticides. The BSFC also maintains that their food must be healthy.
BSFC outreach coordinator Justina Byrne named grocers like Safeway, Berkeley Bowl, and Whole Foods as the store’s biggest competitors. The BSFC is a cooperative, meaning that it is non-profit organization operated by members who volunteer their time at the store in exchange for discounts on food and the ability to vote on BSFC decisions. The money saved from having volunteers instead of employees allows the store to keep product prices low, at least lower than comparable stores like Whole Foods. But the demographic of Whole Foods shoppers is older and more affluent and food-conscious than the average Cal student who values the price of food over its morality. I asked Byrne how the BSFC prices would compare to Safeway.
“If Safeway were selling the products that we’re selling, Safeway would probably be more expensive,” she responded, noting that the food sold at Safeway is often not organic and not locally sourced.
Would students pay a little more for food held to higher standards? I stalked the aisles of the Safeway on College Avenue to investigate.
I figured that students browsing produce would be more likely to care about how their food was made than students found in, say, the aisle with chips and soda. Alex Bigman, a senior at Cal, was carefully selecting Brussels sprouts when I approached him.
Bigman typically shops at Trader Joe’s and says that he comes to Safeway for his produce, which he considers to be of higher quality. The main thing he looks for when shopping for food is convenience; he wants food that is quick and easy to prepare, and has a regular shopping list that includes vegetables, frozen foods, pasta, and eggs. I told him a little about the BSFC store: its location right across from campus, the standards to which it holds its products, and the price, which I described as cheaper than Whole Foods but slightly more expensive than Safeway. Did the BSFC store sound like a place where Bigman might shop?
“My motivation in going there would not be from an ideological standpoint,” Bigman said, but added that its convenient location would motivate him to shop there.
His motivations were shared by others.
A group of second-years waiting at the bus stop outside of Safeway said that they shopped there because it is convenient, especially for students without cars. The location was the main reason that they might choose to shop at the BSFC store. “I don’t know if I care so much about all the [ethical] qualities,” said one of them. All of them named price as one of the main factors they examine when choosing food.
Berkeley senior Silvina Bae shops at Safeway and Trader Joe’s for the variety of products and the convenience. She was in the produce section of Safeway when I asked her about whether the BSFC store appealed to her. “If the pricing is reasonable, then I would shop there,” she said. When asked if there was anything she would be willing to pay more for, she replied, “Meat, if it was better quality.”
Trader Joe’s revealed a similar story. Customers were mildly interested in the ethical values of the BSFC store, but more intrigued by its convenient location. A second-year browsing blackberries told me that although she would shop at the BSFC store because it is much closer to where she lives, Trader Joe’s would still be on her grocery circuit for its variety.
Junior transfer Sammy Kayed said that he was enjoying the freedoms of having a job and living away from home—namely, buying his own food. “I’m getting clams and shrimp,” Kayed said, “I like cooking.” Kayed was the only person I interviewed that said he would shop at the BSFC store because of its values, mentioning that he recently did a research project that revealed to him the less-than-pristine source of Trader Joe’s almonds.
All in all, the convenience of the BSFC storefront appealed to Cal students more than its food dogma.
The BSFC’s biggest challenge will not be selling food, but getting students to care about how their food is made and distributed.
Fortunately for them, education is one of the cornerstones of the BSFC. According to their website, the goal of the Education Committee in the BSFC is to make “the larger environmental, social and political issues related to food systems today more tangible and accessible to students and the surrounding community.” To do this, Byrne said that the Education Committee is planning educational film screenings, workshops, and events teaching people how to cook. The BSFC is peculiar in a food system characterized by industrial agriculture giants and cheap processed foods.
“I want people to see that things need to change,” Burstein said.
The BSFC is scheduled to open on November 15th. In the meantime, they’ll have to find a way to get students as fired up as they are about food.
Sources: BSFC website (www.berkeleystudentfoodcollective.org/about)
Alyssa Kies is a second-year intended Media Studies major and Geography minor. She has a deep love for chocolate, magazines, stinky cheese, and the Bay Area.