Rachel Gross is about to start her senior year at UC Berkeley. A former writer and editor for The Daily Californian, Rachel was also a “blogtern” for the New York Times’ Bay Area blog and writes for The Choice, a Times’ blog on the college admissions process. In addition to covering news stories for Berkeleyside, Rachel will occasionally be sharing her personal observations about events in the city.

By Rachel Gross

Here in the Bay Area, we like to think that food sustains not just our bodies but our conversations. What we eat often becoming the jumping off point for a variety of issues—be they political, environmental, economic or social justice-oriented.

A few activists and sustainable food leaders in Berkeley are trying to harness these crosscurrents through an underground dinner series called “The Local Beet,” which provides local, organic meals and then gets people to talk about them in a larger context. I attended the fourth dinner in the series, which took place Monday June 28 and revolved loosely around the themes of women, food and political power.

Since this is Berkeley, I wasn’t surprised that the event took place in a home that went by the name “Raw Mania Superfoods Co-Op,” and advertised itself as a raw, vegan, barefoot household, or that the 30-or-so attendees ate while sitting cross-legged on pillows. However, I was pleasantly surprise when I tried the soup—which I was told was a cold cantaloupe soup with cinnamon, ginger and mint garnish, described as a “chai soup”—and found that it was actually really good.

On the food front, appetizers included veggies with raw hummus and dolmas with rice and lentils, wrapped in nasturtium flowers  instead of grape leaves. Nasturtium, I found out, is a common and entirely edible plant found all over Berkeley (apparently the flowers provide a peppery addition to salads.) Like many ingredients in the meal, the nasturtium was “foraged,” or found—in this case growing wild. There was also a chickpea curry, roasted cauliflower with vegan garlic aioli sauce, and a flat of impossibly sweet strawberries donated by a local farmer.

Speakers channeled Michael Pollan, pointing out that there has been a trend in America away from basic foods like fruits and vegetables and toward processed creations that can only loosely be defined as “food.” They weren’t always subtle:

“Remember as a kid getting the school lunch with the nasty ass chalupa and the weird cheese and the chiles that looked all fluorescent?” Nikki Henderson, a speaker at the event and the executive director of People’s Groceries, a program in West Oakland that provides fresh produce and cooking lessons to the Oakland community, asked the crowd. “We knew that wasn’t food. You can’t fool a kid. People are poisoning themselves and poisoning their children, and they don’t even know it.”

Sally Lieber, a former Democratic state assemblywoman, spoke next on the importance of maintaining a nutritional social safety net, recognizing hunger as a prevalent social problem in central California and the logic of eating locally.

“Probably all of us have access to the yuppie grocery store that gives out the green bags, but if you go to Whole Foods, you’ll notice that they have breadsticks from Italy,” she said. “As if we don’t have good enough breadsticks.”

The last time she went to Whole Foods, she added, she found wild rosemary growing in the parking lot, which saved her a purchase.

The series was organized by Alex Stone and Yonatan Landau, two UC Berkeley alumni who are also in charge of CoFed , the Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive, a nonprofit that trains youth to open student-run restaurants on college campuses—like the Berkeley Student Food Collective, which opens this fall. They asked for a donation of $25, which went toward the Berkeley Student Food Collective.

Many of the attendees were already concocting ways to combat what they saw as an inequitable or inefficient food system. One woman was working to develop a local organic baby formula, another was in the edible landscaping business, and one man was interested in raising his own chickens.

“It’s a really interesting array of people,” said Niko Klein, an associate at a San Francisco law firm that does food investments who attended the event. “A lot of times you get stuck in problems, and it’s just a room of people thinking about solutions. Food connects people in a kind of…miraculous way.”

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