The Berkeley Potluck

Mackenzie FeldmanAnnie LuAugust 14, 2018

By Mackenzie Feldman and Annie Lu

Mackenzie (top) graduated in May 2018 with a degree in Society and Environment with a minor in Food Systems. She was BFI’s UC Global Food Initiative Student Ambassador during the 2017-18 school year.

Annie (bottom) graduated in May 2018 with a degree in Environmental Economics and Policy with a minor in Food Systems. She was BFI’s Communications Assistant during the 2017-18 school year. 

Photos by Kathy Feldman.

Now that we have officially graduated from UC Berkeley, we want to take a moment to reflect on our amazing time at Cal, and specifically our experience working for the Berkeley Food Institute. Out of all of the incredible opportunities and projects we have been a part of at the BFI, we are most proud of The Berkeley Potluck, which we started together.

Mackenzie’s role as UC Global Food Initiative Student Ambassador, and Annie’s role as Communications Assistant were the perfect recipe for the makings of The Berkeley Potluck. We are both deeply passionate about food systems work, as reflected in our majors, minors, extracurricular activities, and employment at the BFI. Yet, we both felt a certain disconnect between the work taking place in the BFI’s small office and the greater UC Berkeley community. We decided to get out and engage with campus by capturing snapshots of our widely diverse food experiences. And so, The Berkeley Potluck project was born. Inspired by both Humans of New York and the UC Berkeley student-run organization, Second Impressions, we set out to interview and photograph members of the UC Berkeley campus community about experiences around food. The beautiful part about food systems work is that we are all a part of it—we all eat. We have a collective narrative and voice on food issues, yet our individual relationships with food can be wildly different, personal, and surprising.

The Berkeley Potluck portraits
Portraits of the Berkeley Potluck project.

With the help of the BFI staff, we refined our interviewing style and process. We decided to name our project “The Berkeley Potluck” because it represents the act of each person bringing something different to the table, as everyone comes together for some “food for thought.” We interviewed each person for about an hour, and the quotes taken from these interviews provide a glimpse into each individual’s perspective. Collectively, they highlight the diversity and interconnectedness of our food experiences. We had the opportunity to interview 14 people throughout the Spring 2018 semester; you can see each of their portraits here.

Neither of us had experience with ethnographic interviews prior to embarking on The Berkeley Potluck. We were pleasantly surprised by how naturally the conversations flowed. We particularly enjoyed interviewing people who were not directly involved in the “food space” at UC Berkeley, meaning they didn’t study food, work in a food system-related job, or have involvement in a food-related club. These interviewees would at first say that they didn’t really know what to talk about in regards to food. Yet, even after just a few minutes into the conversation, they always had enlightening and unique observations. For example, when we first began our interview with undergraduate student Ya-an, she was hesitant to be featured due to an uncertainty about how she connected with food. However, Ya-an opened up throughout our conversation about a problem that many students can relate to: she is often so busy with classes, work, and other commitments throughout the day that she doesn’t have time to eat. She gets so hungry that she loses her appetite, and ends up going without eating. Listening to Ya-an’s and the many other interviewees’ powerful stories made us realize how important it is to find ways to share stories about our diverse yet shared food experiences. Once we began this project, we couldn’t stop preparing for more interviews. The more we listened, the more we learned, and storytelling was giving us meaning and helping bring to life the food system subjects we were studying.

In April 2018, we held a held a public celebration of The Berkeley Potluck, where we showcased the photos and quotes in a gallery setting. We had a moving slam poetry session by Will Smith, an undergraduate and seasoned slam poet who is involved with guerilla gardening on campus. Will and his niece are featured in The Berkeley Potluck portraits. For the event, he brought the portrait to life by performing a piece about how the joy of food experienced through his baby niece makes him appreciate the intersectionality of cultures in his own identity.

Chef Maricela Vega
Chef Maricela Vega serving event attendees some of her delicious cooking.

Finally, we had food provided by Maricela Vega, founder of Chicomecóatl in Atlanta, GA, who describes her work as curating “a decolonized educational, nutritious food experience by creating modern interpretations of Mesoamerican food.” Maricela and Mackenzie initially met on an agroecology tour in Cuba, and Mari just happened to be in the Bay Area during The Berkeley Potluck Celebration. Having the opportunity to bring connections full-circle from the early stages of food system interest at Cal all the way to the final project was just another reminder of how interconnected food systems work is, and a nice reassurance that we will cross paths with many of our peers again.

Students gathered at the Berkeley Potluck launch
Students gathered at the Berkeley Potluck launch.

Through the event, we achieved what we set out to accomplish: bringing together  students, faculty, and staff from all corners of campus, and even community members and parents to exchange ideas through food and stories. Moving forward, The Berkeley Potluck will continue through the efforts and creativity of future BFI student fellows. We would like to thank BFI and Rosalie Z. Fanshel in particular for giving us the mentorship and ongoing encouragement to see this project come to fruition. The process of building and carrying out the project into a successfully engaging platform reinforced for us the importance of community through storytelling.

Annie Lu and Mackenzie Feldman at Berkeley Potluck launch
Annie and Mackenzie, the leaders of the Berkeley Potluck project.

As we move on from UC Berkeley into our post-grad lives, this hands-on work will certainly fuel our continued commitment to food systems work. Annie expects to volunteer with urban gardens that feed, educate, and serve local communities, and to keep diving into food as a lens to bridge understanding across cultures. Mackenzie will be writing a plant-based cookbook with her mom that shares the stories of over 15 leaders in the food movement, including chefs, farmers, writers, teachers, and doctors.

No matter where life takes us, we will be sure to always have food for thought!

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