College grub

Holding hands, having a picnic … that’s what the Berkeley lifestyle is all about.

Holding hands, having a picnic … that’s what the Berkeley lifestyle is all about.

Photo COURTESY OF <a href="">COFED.ORG</a>

Ari LeVaux is a nationally syndicated food columnist. Regular RN&R restaurant reviewer Sharon Black is on maternity leave. She’ll be back on March 17.
More information on CoFed can be found at

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 glory. But most did it to curtail the waste encouraged by the all-you-can-eat 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 the cafeteria food sucked, they sold homemade food like noodles in peanut sauce 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 more sophisticated and better organized wave of college foodies.

An organization called CoFed started, as many organizations do, with a protest, in this case, against the opening of a Panda Express fast food restaurant, in 2009, in the U.C. Berkeley student union.

Adding symbolic oomph to the protest was the fact 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 in late 2010. Styled like a convenience store, BSFC is now providing clean, healthy, fair-trade, affordable food, with all of the produce grown within 150 miles of campus.

It’s not surprising this idea was born at Berkeley. Besides being a Petri dish for left-leaning foodies, the university is in a state blessed with a year-long growing season, where it’s possible for locavores to practice their preferred diet full time. 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.

“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.

At a recent training session in Sebastapol, Calif., 30 students from 10 campuses gathered to learn how to create student food collectives on their campuses. The training was based on a new CoFed-produced manual. It’s a document tailored to the creation of student food collectives, but would also be useful to businesses and nonprofits in any field. It touches on topics like organizational structure, team building, delegation, record keeping, recruiting, creating effective advisory boards, conducting market research, running meetings, handling media, fundraising, obtaining necessary permits, and negotiating a lease.

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.

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.