At first glance, the cute little blueberry baskets might seem out of place among the maze of political posters, stickers and T-shirts inside UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza.
And yet, this, too, is the beginning of a new kind of campus movement.
When fast-food chain Panda Express told the ASUC Auxiliary’s Store Operations Board the company wanted to take over the space formerly occupied by Naia Gelataria, students, staff and faculty at the university had mixed reactions.
Some supported the idea, arguing it would bring much-needed revenue to a flagging ASUC budget, but others let out a howl of protest.
Calling Panda Express a “big, unhealthy and non-eco-friendly chain corporation,” a group of students offered the option of a student-run food co-op as an alternative.
The students’ petitions and presence at board meetings were enough to sway the vote against the chain, and now the empty gelataria space is a potential spot for the food co-op.
“We wanted a student-controlled space which would produce cutting-edge, sustainable food,” said ASUC Senator Christina Oatfield, one of the leaders of the campaign against Panda Express. “Something on the lines of a member-owned grocery, cafe and deli to provide fresh, healthy, cheap and environmentally sustainable food.”
Every Monday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., a couple of students pile fresh, local produce on a small table across from Upper Sproul Plaza, hoping to get the word out to more people.
So far, 1,000 students have joined the food co-op campaign, of which 40 are active participants, Oatfield said.
The group is in the process of developing a business plan and has raised $106,000 toward the co-op to date, thanks to grants from UC Berkeley’s Green Initiative Fund, the Berkeley Student Cooperative and Bears Breaking Boundaries, a competition sponsored by the student government to encourage new ideas on campus.
Alex Stone, a recent UC Berkeley graduate, said that the co-op would buy its produce according to the Real Food Challenge’s Guidelines for Real Food (realfoodchallenge.org).
“It will be as local and organic as possible,” said Stone, balancing a couple of avocados on top of some squash, which had just been delivered from Oakland. “And the pricing will be as affordable as possible. Everything will be ‘at cost.’ This is really a grassroots level effort.”
A bunch of sophomores stopped by to inspect the fruit, paying $3 for a basket of blueberries. “Youth power!” they chanted, making a V sign with their fingers.
“People are excited about it,” said Marc Smith, a Berkeley City College student who was helping Stone. “We are excited that we are getting healthy food to people.”
When asked why students would want to shop at a student co-op when they could buy the same things at Berkeley Bowl or Whole Foods, Smith said the coop’s proximity to the campus would be more convenient for students.
Oatfield said the students were also looking at a couple of other places on Telegraph Avenue in case the space on Lower Sproul Plaza, which Naia was renting for around $2,800 every month, fell through.
Adam Wright, a provider who brings produce to the students from different farmers’ markets in Berkeley and Oakland, said cheap, fresh food would always be in demand during a desperate economy.
“I love it when things are at this scale,” he said. “Grocery stores mark things up 100 percent, we mark things up zero percent.”
Stone handed Wright a list of things she wanted him to bring for the produce stand next Monday.
“The duck eggs will probably have to go,” she said smiling. “It’s a little odd to see duck eggs at a produce stall.”
For more information on the Berkeley Student Food Cooperative, see berkeleyfoodcoop.com.