Graduate Students Work Towards Justice in Our Campus Food System

Campus Food Equity and Inclusion Policy Fellows, Isa Gaillard (left) and Joyce M. Lee (right).

December 11, 2018

By Isa Gaillard and Joyce Minghui Lee

(From left to right) Isa Gaillard is a Master of City Planning candidate focusing on Environmental Planning and Healthy Cities. Joyce Minghui Lee is a Master of Public Health candidate focusing on Public Health Nutrition.

In mid-November, the Camp Fire—California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire—permanently changed the lives of the residents of the town of Paradise. The consequences also extended 150 miles southwest to the Bay Area, in gustful waves of ash and smoke. The air quality in the Bay Area hit  an all time low for two weeks. This poor air quality indiscriminately affected everyone in the Bay Area, and yet, certain groups that are already the most disadvantaged were hit hardest: the homeless, outdoor workers including farmworkers, those with preexisting conditions such as asthma, and those that did not have the means to leave the region.   

This disparity highlights the need for services and resources to reduce the exposure to harm. The air quality was a reminder that in order for environmental action to be truly effective, it must address root problems comprehensively; environmental action must be responsive to social justice issues. Rather than only addressing symptoms such as putting out fires or passing out particulate matter masks, we must also implement policies to prevent crises and seek other proactive ways to uplift our communities. This way when these crises inevitably occur, every person is equipped financially, with good healthcare, and strong community networks, to weather the storm. As Campus Food Equity and Inclusion Policy Fellows at the Berkeley Food Institute (BFI), we have worked to uplift the UC Berkeley community, specifically on the issue of food justice.

In fall 2018, we joined BFI’s Building Equitable and Inclusive Food Systems at UC Berkeley Foodscape Mapping Project, which depicts structural barriers to food-related learning and practice for marginalized community members, and highlights opportunities to overcome these obstacles. Specifically, we worked on three issues: expanding food security services to UC Berkeley staff; empowering diverse business owners to provide sustainable catering to campus; and developing a strategy to increase access to healthy beverages on campus by finding alternatives to UC Berkeley’s exclusive pouring rights contract with PepsiCo.

Expanding Basic Needs for UC Berkeley Staff

Amidst a statewide housing crisis with a lack of affordable housing, Prop 10—which would have enabled local governments to establish rent control—was defeated by a 38-62% margin in the November midterm elections. In the Bay Area, in particular, rent prices have increased 40-50% since 2012. Through analysis of UC Berkeley wages, we discovered that 76% of job titles for the four unions that represent the lowest earning positions—clerical, service, technical, and postdoctoral scholars unions—have wages that fall below the low income household cutoffs set by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development for 1-person households in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties, and 98% fall below the cutoff for a 4-person household.1 This indicates a potential risk to the housing security for UC employees (81% of members of the clerical union, for example, live in these two counties).2 Research demonstrates that housing and food security are indeed related in low-income urban communities, and food security can be compromised by rent costs.

To begin to address the issue of food insecurity among UC Berkeley’s lowest paid staff, we established a working group comprised of leadership from UC Berkeley Basic Needs Security, University Health Services, custodial services, CalDining, and BFI. Our immediate goal is to expand the campus’s Basic Needs student support to include staff. To this end, the UC Berkeley Food Pantry adapted more inclusive language to serve the overall UC Berkeley community (previously all signage addressed students only). We also initiated on-campus CalFresh enrollment opportunities for staff. The working group is preparing holiday food baskets for custodial and food service staff and will offer pantry tours. We shared our concerns and work with Chancellor Christ via the Chancellor’s Staff Advisory Committee. Ultimately the long term goal is to engage broader UC leadership in conversation on the topic of UC Berkeley staff wages vis-a-vis the current cost of living in the Bay Area.

Sustainable and Just Catering

La Cocina, a San Francisco-based incubator program that helps low income, immigrant, and women of color food entrepreneurs grow their businesses, currently has a pop-up in the MLK, Jr. Student Union.
La Cocina, a San Francisco-based incubator program that helps low income, immigrant, and women of color food entrepreneurs grow their businesses, currently has a pop-up in the MLK, Jr. Student Union.

Because UC Berkeley provides food for hundreds of meetings and events weekly, catering plays a significant role in the UC Berkeley food procurement landscape. At the same time, rising rent prices and low profit margins make maintaining a business in the Bay Area especially difficult for small caterers that pay their employees fair wages and don’t sacrifice quality or sustainability to cut costs. We think our campus should highlight and uplift these types of businesses that represent the values of: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; Environmental Sustainability; Food Recovery; Health and Nutrition; and Fair Labor Practices. BFI developed these five values based on the university’s Principles of Community and Zero-Waste statements.

The Sustainable and Just Catering Guide provides guidelines to assist departments in working with vendors to provide sustainable and just food, and is a great way to uplift businesses that represent these values. Another tool we have used is the Sustainable and Just Catering Vendor List, a list of companies that has been distributed to the Berkeley Event Network to connect sustainable and socially-conscious businesses with groups that seek catering services. Our next steps include finalizing a methodology for codifying caterer’s business practices, by assigning points for each value on the Guide. We also plan to distribute the Guide and Vendor List to the larger campus community, including student, faculty, and alumni groups to scale up their reach.

Healthy Beverage Advocacy Project

Pepsi vending machine in Wurster Hall.
Pepsi vending machine in Wurster Hall.

UC Berkeley is approaching year eight of a ten-year contract with PepsiCo for exclusive beverage service across Cal Dining, vending machines, and athletics concessions. Any future contract negotiation for beverage service should strongly consider other options outside of PepsiCo and other multinational food corporations that seem to be unconcerned with the negative health and sustainability impacts they are having on the world. We have developed a growing alliance of experts and advocates who are united in our vision of a UC Berkeley that provides healthier beverages and supports socially and environmentally just businesses. If you are interested in joining our alliance, contact Rosalie Z. Fanshel at

As emerging leaders in the fields of City Planning and Public Health, we have found that these projects have grounded our efforts in addressing local, immediate, and complex environmental and social justice challenges. They have also shed light on ways to leverage university-wide systems to foster new, inclusive visions that can be used to strengthen our campus food system. This leveraging of powerful institutions and reenvisioning of society through policy advocacy will be important tools as we pursue food justice strategies to bolster disadvantaged communities amidst increasing environmental and economic pressures.

1 Data on salary rates for job titles are do not represent specific employee salaries. Employee job title annual salaries are derived from UC Berkeley represented bargaining rates, updated Sept 25, 2018. See
2 Data on CX staff county of residence obtained from CX Union membership for UC Berkeley in 2017.