Across the Country, Food Co-ops by the Students for the Students

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Barry Estabrook


When Panda Express, a 1,300-outlet Chinese fast-food chain, announced plans to open a branch on the campus of the University of California-Berkeley, a group of students protested (not surprisingly, given that their city is the heart of all things local/seasonal/organic). What is surprising is that the students not only defeated the chain but also took their victory one step further by raising $100,000 to replace the proposed Beijing Beef, Honey Walnut Shrimp, and Kung Pao Chicken joint with a student-run co-op carrying fresh, local, healthy, sustainable, and fairly produced food that would be sold at affordable prices.

Youthful naiveté? Think again. After two and a half years of planning, the Berkeley Student Food Collective opened late last year. According to Yoni Landau, one of the organizers, the collective resembles any small convenience store or market, featuring grocery items and prepared sandwiches that harried students can grab on their way to or from classes. Prices are kept affordable with the help of volunteer employees. "We won," said Landau in an interview.

"This was all the students' idea," said Slow Food's Viertel. "They said, 'If our college campuses aren't going to start buying local, organic, sustainable food, then let's train ourselves how to set up co-operatives.'"

If Landau has his way, there are going to be a lot of other winners, too. Landau, who graduated recently, and others involved in the Berkeley effort realized that the experience had taught them a great deal about the nitty-gritty details of opening a successful co-op. Instead of allowing that knowledge to languish, they decided to start an organization that would train students nationwide how to open their own campus food co-ops. "It's really about food sovereignty," he said. "Students having control over the institutions that serve them food."

About a year ago, with Landau as director, the students founded the Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive (CoFed), whose launch committee includes such sustainable food luminaries as authors Michael Pollan and Bill McKibben and Slow Food USA president Josh Viertel.

Late last month, 30 students from 10 campuses across the country—in Oregon, California, Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts—gathered in Sebastopol, California, for 10 days of leadership training. Along with sessions dedicated to "youth empowerment" and "university politics," the students also took classes on nuts-and-bolts subjects like business planning and finance.

The newly trained students, either volunteers or earning "symbolic stipends," according to Landau, will share their knowledge through six regional CoFed branches. "By the end of the summer, we plan to be on 25 campuses and have trained 100 leaders," said Landau. "It's about creating generations of leadership."

"This was all the students' idea," said Slow Food's Viertel. "They said, 'If our college campuses aren't going to start buying local, organic, sustainable food, then let's train ourselves how to set up co-operatives so that we can support the local farming community and feed ourselves. Now, they are training each other, and it works really well. I've seen students make incredible things happen. In fact, I would say that students are always a core part of a successful social movement. They are creating a different future."

According to Landau, one of the instructors at the Sebastopol retreat left the students with this message: "The best thing about unsustainability is that it's unsustainable."

That's a lesson us old folks would do well to learn.

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Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.
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