by Jesse Hirsch
Dozens of progressive students from across North America converged on Berkeley this weekend, bearing cardboard name badges, vegan recipes, and bright-eyed ideas about how to shake up their college food-supply systems. With a rallying cry of “Occupy Your Plate!” the Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive hosted a boot camp to help students create their own on-campus co-ops.
Organizer and self-described “chief evangelist” Yoni Landau said most of the fifty-plus attendees were starting co-ops from the ground floor, and came for a weekend of networking and self-education. I spent a couple of hours at UC Berkeley’s Cloyne Court co-op Saturday night, chatting with attendees and checking out some guest speakers.
Most students had been involved with their campus Occupy movements, like Sam Shain of Haverford University in Pennsylvania. Shain and friends launched a granola cooperative out of a student apartment this fall. She called this “Phase 1,” the gateway operation to eventually launching a cafe and grocer on campus. “We’re starting small, and will keep growing incrementally,” she said.
To launch the granola operation, Shain and friends rode a carbon-neutral bike fleet to the farmers’ market, using micro-grant funding to purchase ingredients for a vegan feast. Another student organizer, Elli Pearson of UC Davis, told proud stories about her fledgling co-op’s bicycle-powered blender and a recent “Funkraiser” they held.
Though the ideals were noble and the enthusiasm infectious, at times this gathering veered towards self-parody (Landau led attendees in a freeform improvisational movement session before their tamari-and-tofu dinner).
Luckily Nikki Henderson, executive director of the People’s Grocery in West Oakland, showed up for some straight talk over dinner. Henderson referenced cult favorite TV show Portlandia, a spot-on satire of leftie subculture. She suggested that food activists be aware of the image they can present to people outside their movement (case in point: mainstream media portrayals of Occupy protestors). “I like yoga and Pilates and turning on the love light just like you,” she said. “But when you’re inviting outsiders to share dinner at your co-op, you might want to dial back the love light thing … it’s too easy for us nice crunchy folk to get abused.”
Henderson also entreated the predominantly white crowd to head into underserved communities near their campus for some outreach. “Throw a dinner party, and try to make sure the faces are less than 50 percent white,” she said. “You have the power to become a hub for a very diverse community.”
Kevin Danaher, social-justice activist and co-founder of Global Exchange, also roused the assembled masses. His speech hit on a panoply of progressive concerns, from eco-consciousness to labor issues to the sanctity of our foodways. He finished with a rundown of the Occupy movement’s lasting impact. “For all its flaws, Occupy has re-injected class analysis into our politics,” Danaher said. “It’s an exciting time … food is really the best issue you can focus on right now.”
The Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive has raised more than $110,000 since its founding in fall 2010, which it plans to use in support of 35 student-run food co-ops.
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