Every two weeks, on the first and third Tuesdays of the month, tables on the sidewalk at the intersection of Bancroft Way and Martin Luther King Jr. Way are covered in fresh produce, ready to eat meals, and dry goods. Community members, assisted by high school students, fill bags of food to take home from the food pantry run by the Public Health Cooking Career and Technical Education (CTE) class at Berkeley High School (BHS) for free. A similar pantry is available on the second and fourth Tuesday of the month at the Berkeley Technology Academy (BTA).
The students in this CTE class, taught by Debra Hill, work at the food pantry twice a month. On other days, they prepare meals and then eat them together during class as they learn about diet-related disease and local policy related to health and diet.
The students are paid to work at the pantry as part of their CTE internship. According to Hill, who also teaches biology and life sciences, the pantry is beneficial not only to community members, but also students at BHS involved in the program. Her class aims to educate students about how to feed themselves, and also how to make sure that those in their community are getting enough food and access to healthy nutrition.
“A food pantry is a great way to provide sustenance and survival, really; for many families, as well as individuals, [it’s a way] to have access to healthy food,” said Hill. “And it’s just a good way to promote healthy food for students, rather than processed, high sugar foods.”
Jezra Thompson, the supervisor of the district-wide gardening and cooking programs, shared a similar perspective. She said that working at the food pantry has been a meaningful experience for many students who have learned through the pantry about food insecurity and how they could contribute to making sure members of their community had enough healthy food.
“The food pantries help connect our work, students, and teachers at all Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) schools with the shared goal of improving the health and well being of our community,” Hill said.
The food distributed through the pantry comes from the Berkeley Food Network (BFN), which collects food from food businesses and the Alameda County Food Bank, along with recovering food that would otherwise go to waste from local farms, grocery stores, and restaurants. The BFN partners with numerous other organizations to hand out food, including religious institutions and local nonprofits.
Everyone deserves to have access to fresh and healthy food, said Hill. “But, in our society, there’s always going to be people in need that aren’t quite able to have a consistent way of having access to healthy food.”
Particularly in the past two years, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of these inequalities have become even more apparent. According to statistics from the World Bank, 30 percent of the global population lacked access to adequate food in 2020, which represents an increase of 320 million people in one year.
“COVID-19 has highlighted the inequities in our society … there are a lot of people who, you know, don’t have much,” Hill said.
Even throughout the pandemic-related shutdowns of schools and businesses, the food pantry was able to continue providing food to people in Berkeley who needed it. Each year since 2018, when the students enrolled in the public health CTE class first came up with the idea to create a food pantry, students in the class have been helping the community stay fed while continuing to learn important life skills for themselves.
As other BUSD schools have observed the successes of the food pantries at BHS and BTA, some have considered starting their own. As Hill said, “I think [food pantries are] kind of picking up some with, you know, COVID-19.” The possibility of more food pantries means the potential for less hunger in Berkeley. “We should be giving food to everyone who needs it,’’ said Hill. She continued, “Everyone should have access to healthy food.”