Op-ed: Amid Academic Strikes, UC Students Liberated Their Cafeterias | Civil Eats
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 15: Union academic workers and supporters march and picket at the UCLA campus amid a statewide strike by nearly 48,000 University of California unionized workers on November 15, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. The strikers are calling for improved wages and benefits at the 10 UC public university campuses across California. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Op-ed: Amid Academic Strikes, UC Students Liberated Their Cafeterias

Across California, university students are taking over dining halls in solidarity with graduate students on strike. It’s also a response to food insecurity and economic injustices on campus.

Last week, for the second time in a month, an autonomous group of students at two University of California campuses released statements saying they had “liberated the dining commons” in a non-violent effort to provide free meals. And while the actions, which are taking place against the backdrop of the largest academic worker strike in history, have yet to feed a large number of people, they’re raising awareness about food insecurity among college students—which is at an alarming high.

Students lined up outside Latitude Dining Commons at UC Davis and Carrillo Dining Commons at UC Santa Barbara, where they were told they could eat lunch without swiping a dining card because a group of students had effectively blocked the swiping station. Signs reading “Food is a human right” and “All smiles, no swipes,” lined the walls outside.

A sign from UCSB reading

Photo from @UCSB4COLA on Instagram.

A short time later, a group called Abolish the UC posted stories on Instagram about how students had also successfully taken control of dining commons at UC Los Angeles, UC Riverside, and UC Santa Cruz. “Everyone deserves to eat!” said an Instagram post by the Student Labor Advocacy Project of UCLA. “The action was meant to help food insecure students and push the idea of [a cost of living adjustment] for all.” In a zine, the student group paid homage to the Black Panthers’ free breakfast program as well at the striking graduate students and explained their goals for the taking control of the dining commons by saying, “We want to free the resources that should be ours in the first place.”

Student groups at some of the campuses were more successful than at others. According to several social media accounts run by undergraduate collectives across UC campuses, the school administration shut down the action at De Neve, UCLA’s dining commons. “Admin officials blocked the entrances and removed all the food from inside,” the post read. “The collective tried to let people through, but the administration’s response was aggressive. Some protestors even faced violence as admin officials physically pushed them away,” it added.

Another account, run by a student collective at UC Santa Cruz, reported that same afternoon that “the university admin has stopped replenishing the food in the dining hall.” At UC Riverside, the administration called the police, and reportedly told students there was a “right” way to protest, which indicated to the student groups it was not a financial decision. “As we see it, the university and its police would rather subject community members to arrest, violence and precarity than allow any of us to eat for free,” Abolish UCR said in a statement.

As a lecturer at UC Santa Barbara, I’ve experienced the UC strike firsthand: 48,000 graduate students walked out five weeks ago, and the latest negotiations have landed them in private mediation with UC administrators, throwing the 10 campuses in the system into chaos. This week, the strike has reached a boiling point as graduate students, responsible for much of the campus grading, have not been available to grade final exams. Many faculty scaled back their finals, campuses pushed back final grade deadlines, and the faculty members honoring the picket line are withholding an estimated 36,000 grades.

In our best moments, undergraduates and faculty like me have joined our postdocs and graduate student instructors on the picket line, determined to see UC as a common enemy, rather than direct our anger toward each other or striking workers. Still, there’s a simmering feeling of panic and resentment at this point, and my colleagues are worried about their own workload and ability to plan winter quarter lectures without a clear sense of how much graduate student help will be available.

Screenshots from a video taken at UCSB documenting the liberation of the dining commons. (Via @UCSB4COLA on Instagram)The menu Screenshots from a video taken at UCSB documenting the liberation of the dining commons. (Via @UCSB4COLA on Instagram)

Screenshots from a video taken at UCSB documenting the liberation of the dining commons. (Via @UCSB4COLA on Instagram)

And yet, the graduate student instructors who have gone on strike earn only $24,000 a year, and many have struggled to afford necessities like food. They’re asking the university to meet their basic needs—a cost of living adjustment, affordable childcare, and more.

Meanwhile, 39 percent of undergraduate students across the UC campuses have reported being food insecure during their enrollment as students, according to a 2020 report from the UC Regents on improving students’ basic needs, and those numbers rise among students from underrepresented groups—62 percent of African American, 57 percent of Latin American, 49 percent of Native American, and half of LGBTQ+ students report food insecurity. And those numbers reflect a national problem; an estimated 40 percent of college students have experienced food insecurity compared to 11 percent of the general population.

While there are food pantry options across campuses, the report notes they don’t often provide healthy options or much variety, so students “split grocery costs with friends or even skip meals to make food last longer.” Students told the researchers they are “coping with a constant tradeoff between eating and other priorities like seeking medical services (to avoid medical bills) and physical health.” Some students noted the physical signs of hunger, including sickness, fatigue, and sleepiness, which made it hard to focus on school when food was on their mind.

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At UC Santa Barbara, where I have taught for the last decade, food insecurity is much higher—48 percent of undergraduates and 31 percent of our graduate students report “that they do not have reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food,” according to our Food Security Taskforce. I have a note in my syllabus letting students know about the various campus options for finding free meals and groceries, noting simply, “If you’re hungry, you cannot do your school work.” In the hierarchy of basic needs, food is a foundational element of what it takes for a student to succeed.

“When half our student body is going hungry, it’s time for UC to look at its budget and stop making cuts that are at the expense of students’ basic dignity and well-being.”

According to our campus Policies and Procedures for Food Services, food services (including dining commons) must be “fully solvent,” which might be why it costs off-campus students $1,689 for just two meals a day during winter quarter 2023. On top of a five-year tuition hike, It’s easy to see why so many students in my classrooms are food insecure, and it is critical to make sure they are fed to ensure they, and the university, can keep running.

The undergraduate groups who have twice liberated the dining commons are asking that the public university where they pay tuition treat food like the most fundamental need of all. Students deserve dignity, they argue. “We want to end food insecurity, rent burden, and worker exploitation,” their zine states. These don’t seem like revolutionary ideas to me.

I know that my students who struggle to access enough food are managing extra stress, shame, and poorer health than their food-secure counterparts, and many have to work full-time jobs in addition to earning their degrees. The fact that there are so many of them, though, shows the systemic nature of their hunger. It’s not their fault, and it shouldn’t be their problem. When half our student body is going hungry, it’s time for UC to look at its budget and stop making cuts that are at the expense of students’ basic dignity and well-being.

As UC enters mediation with its striking workers this week, the administration must also consider how, as a public resource, they meet the needs of all its students. Last week, UCLA students served lunch at Bunche Hall for anyone who showed up, “even the regents”—perhaps students can continue to prepare and serve periodic free meals for each other with money UC campuses can designate for the food and labor.

Undergraduates are a resourceful and creative group, and UC should include them in decisions related to food access. They know the problems they face better than anyone, and certainly have ideas about how to feed themselves and their peers using existing resources. I’m proud of their belief that food is a basic human right, that public universities are for more than just research and teaching—they are communities that owe dignity and humanity to their members.

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The student groups who keep liberating the food in the dining commons are telling us something about the greatest needs on campus. It’s up to the rest of us to listen and solve the problem with and for them.

Ellen O'Connell Whittet is a continuing lecturer in the Writing Program at UC Santa Barbara. She is the author of the memoir What You Become in Flight and is on Twitter @oconnellwhittet. Read more >

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