Berkeley Food Network celebrated the opening of its warehouse in the former Premier Cru building on Sept.19. Photo: David Buchholz

Hundreds of people gathered in a large warehouse on University Avenue Thursday evening to celebrate the building’s transformation from a wine storage facility to a place that will help Berkeley’s hungry get enough food to eat.

The occasion was a coming out of sorts for the Berkeley Food Network, which had previously been mostly operating out of rented food storage facilities and kitchens since it was founded in 2016. BFN facilitates the distribution of unwanted and unused food to organizations that serve people who don’t have enough.

The Berkeley Food Network has a walk-in pantry at its new warehouse on Ninth Street and University Avenue. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

There are about 24,000 people in Berkeley who are food insecure, according to a report by the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, said Kate Campbell King, a co-founder of BFN and the current board president. Only about 3% of those are homeless, she said. The rest include students, seniors and people working jobs that don’t bring in enough income.

“There are so many students at Cal, at Berkeley City College, people who work and who have a place to live but who are on the edge,” said Campbell.

BFN serves about 900 families or 4,000 individuals a month, sometimes twice a month, according to Sara Webber, the executive director. Each person gets enough groceries to last for several days to a week, averaging about “10 lbs of food/per person/individual at each distribution,” she said. Now that the warehouse at 1001 University Ave., by Ninth St., in the old Premier Cru building, is up and running, BFN hopes to up the number of people it helps each month to 10,000 to 12,000.

BFN serves as a hub for food distribution. It mostly gets food from the Alameda County Community Food Bank, but also gathers donations from restaurants and grocery stores of edible food that otherwise would have gone to waste.

The BFN has about 40 partners that it works with, including groups like the UC Berkeley Bear Pantry, Food Not Bombs and Healthy Black Families. The BFN also directly delivers food to 17 Berkeley preschools, elementary schools, middle schools and high schools, senior centers, shelters and elsewhere.

The new warehouse will now allow people who are food insecure to stop by and visit a walk-in pantry to get provisions. On Thursday it was stocked with pasta, rice, cereal, canned tomatoes, apple sauce, milk, eggs and Ripple, a plant-based, dairy-free milk.

From left: Kate Campbell, co-founder of BFN; Sara Webber, executive director; City Councilwoman Sophie Hahn; and Artrese Morrison from the Alameda County Community Food Bank. Photo: David Buchholz.
BFN founders Dona Boatright, Chuck Fanning, Kate Campbell and Sara Webber. Photo: David Buchholz.
Volunteers at the BFN event. Photo: David Buchholz.
Donation pitch at Berkeley Food Network opening celebration. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

While the Alameda County Community Food Bank has long been distributing food to organizations around the county, it had certain requirements, such as the need to deliver entire truckloads, that smaller groups could not comply with. The BFN will be able to store food for groups, as well as deliver smaller loads.

Berkeley Food Network leases the space for $1 a month

The BFN occupies the space once owned by Premier Cru, an upscale wine company that went bankrupt in 2017. Its owner, John Fox, pleaded guilty to mail fraud and admitted he was the mastermind of a $45 million Ponzi scheme. He is currently serving a six and a half year sentence in federal prison.

In March 2017, Berkeley spent $6.5 million to buy the complex once owned by Premier Cru with the intent of eventually constructing affordable housing on the site. The complex includes four different addresses on three parcels: 1001 University Ave., 1007 University Ave., 1011 University Ave. and 1925 Ninth Street site. Bauman College: Holistic Nutrition and Culinary Arts currently occupies one of the buildings.

Berkeley paid for the land by borrowing the funds from the city’s Workers’ Compensation Fund 875. It will repay the funds, plus interest, from money generated from excess property taxes.

At one point, the City Council considered moving its meeting space into 1011 University Ave., which Premier Cru had used as its lavish retail space. That plan was dropped when the Berkeley Unified School District agreed to rent its board room to the city.

City officials have said that it will take five to seven years to put together a package to build affordable housing on the former Premier Cru site. In the interim, the city is leasing portions of the property.

The Berkeley Food Network is leasing the warehouse for $1 a month, but part of the arrangement includes a promise to distribute $100,000 worth of food every year to Berkeley residents, said Webber. BFN fulfilled that part of the bargain before the warehouse officially opened, she said. The lease is for three years, with two possible one-year extensions.

Remodeling the warehouse only cost the BFN $100,000, in part because of a $100,000 grant from the Alameda County Community Food Bank and in part because of the generosity of builders, said Chuck Fanning, a co-founder and board member. Orton Construction donated time and materials, as did Maz Glass.

This article has been updated to say BFN previously operated out of rented food storage facilities, not private homes and garages.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...