The Food Culture and Environment of Andres Castro Arms

The following is a "brief" paper on an ethnographic study of Andres Castro Arms, which is one of the cooperative houses, which is a part of the Berkeley Student Cooperative.

            Uphill from UC Berkeley’s campus, perched on Prospect Street overlooking the bay lies Andres Castro Arms, one the twenty houses that make up the Berkeley Student Cooperative.  Housing fifty-six residents and hosting up to ten live out, boarding members, Andres Castro Arms, hereafter referred to as Castro, offers up an eclectic environment where people from diverse backgrounds and walks of life come together under one roof.  Being a cooperative space, each member of Castro is required to perform five hours of workshift per week; this consists of a variety of chores, anything from cleaning bathrooms to cooking dinner for the house.  Cooking is one of the most time consuming of the workshifts available to house members, taking up four of the weekly five hours, yet it is one that is intrinsic to the creation of a cohesive living environment. Six nights a week, at seven in the evening the members of the house gather and wait for dinner to be served, and once dinner arrives the feasting begins.

            The purpose of this ethnography is to identify the overarching food culture inherent in the Berkeley Student Cooperative, hereafter referred to as the BSC, and in particular within Castro.  In doing so, a deeper understanding of the effects of living in such an environment will be gleaned through an examination of personal accounts of members who are relatively new to the cooperative system, so that they may be able to provide a before-and-after perspective to how living in this environment has affected their lives.  This question can be broken down more clearly as follows:  first, what forms and constitutes the food environment at Castro, second, how does the food environment affect the members of the household, or co-op, and finally, what lasting impacts, if any, are made by living in this environment. 

            The primary means of data collection used were direct participation in meals at Castro, and surveys carried out both in person and digitally over email, see Figures 1-7.  The questions asked were as follows:  (1) What were your perspectives on food and diet before moving into Castro?, (2)  What do you perceive to be the food environment that Castro cultivates?, (3) Do you feel that the Castro’s food environment affects your views on what you eat? And how?, (4) How do you think this environment cultivated affects the members of the house?, (5) Do you find the environment that is created to be a healthy one? How? Why?, (6) Have you noticed any differences in your habits when you eat out?, (7) Have you noticed any difference in how you view food in other living environments?, and (8) Do you proactively share the information you have gathered?.  In particular these questions were asked to relatively new members of Castro, who have lived there for less than two semesters.  By surveying relatively new members the goal is to be able to get more distinct information in how each of the interviewees’ perspective on food has changed since entering this cooperative, or co-op environment.

            In co-ops, dinner is an important part of the food environment and culture.  It is one in which many philosophies, culinary beliefs, dietary restrictions, and preferences are expressed and revealed.  It is from the observation and analysis of dinners at Castro that the survey responses can be better understood, as well from which the building blocks for the greater food related environment are revealed. 

            Each meal at Castro has a distinctive structure.  The structure can be seen as an offshoot of Mary Douglas’ structure of a meal, which is 1A +2B, with “A” being one central ingredient, and “B” representing unstressed ingredients (Douglass).  At Castro the central ingredient of each meal is a vegan or vegetarian protein option, and rather than two unstressed ingredients, each meal at Castro includes four, which are a starch, a vegetable side dish, a salad, and an optional meat based protein course.  When the meal is presented to the house any allergies or dietary restrictions are announced, and each dish is delineate as being gluten free, vegan, vegetarian, etc. as applies.  The effects of this structure can be seen clearly in the responses of many of the interviewees.

            Many of the interviewees responded that living in Castro increased their awareness of what one consumes, where one’s food is from, how to eat healthily, dietary restrictions, and how to accommodate people with a wide range of dietary limits and culinary preferences.  Although to varying degrees, each of the Castro members interviewed expressed that this meal structure and means of presentation was different than what they were used to at home, in apartment, or other previous living environments.  Five of the seven Castro members interviewed expressed that they either put little thought into what they ate, or that they only had a small baseline of knowledge about what is and is not deemed “good” to eat.  The other two members interviewed expressed that they were vegetarians before hand, which contributes to an increased awareness of what one eats; however, they both acknowledge that they had a more constricted perspective on food without substantial knowledge of less commonly known “hippie foods” that are now growing in popularity, such as kale, quinoa, or nutritional yeast, as well as less awareness of the origin of the food being consumed (Kang; Harbringer).  By creating a structure around how and what people eat, important factors, such as a balanced meal, dietary restrictions, portion control, and exposure to new ingredients, are brought into a place of prominence during dinner.  Being the largest daily gathering of the house, dinner provides an important opportunity for the presentation and discussion of these practices and ideologies so that they may become integrated into Castro’s food environment, as well as into the house member’s mindsets.  House dinners provide a time to come together and to establish closer relationships with each other, and with one’s food.  These house dinners are akin to some of the feasts Martin Jones discusses in his article, “Seasons of the Feast”.  “By coming and partaking [in feasts], they . . . tacitly engage themselves in extended networks” (Jones 168).  It is through this nearly nightly gathering and feasting that the ideals embraced by the food that is cooked and the means in which it is presented becomes ingrained within the fabric of Castro’s members and food environment.  However, these collective dinners, or feasts, are not the only contributor to the food environment and mindset of Castro.  Along with these dinners cooked by that days two dinner cooks, there is also the ability and availability to cook food for oneself at Castro. 

            Along with food for dinner cooks to use there is also a fairly consistent amount of produce and non-perishable goods, such as baking supplies, rice, quinoa, or lentils, that are available for members of the house to use to make personal meals at their own discretion.  The food is ordered by a kitchen manager, whose job is to not only order food for the house, but also to facilitate food politics discussions, ensure that the food budget is not overstepped, and to ensure that the food provided is acceptable for a majority of the house, which often means always having at least one vegan and/or gluten free option.  By having food available to cook with on constant basis the members of Castro are able to experiment with what is available.  As Castro member Daniel Harbringer has pointed out, “many people in a small kitchen makes learning and correcting very easy”, as well as that members gain a greater understanding about complete vegan proteins and more obscure fruits and vegetables, such as chard, endives, or persimmons that people may not be as familiar with as the “standard” American culinary fare (Harbringer).  They are able to learn new methods of cooking, and new recipes.  They are able to explore new dishes, new ingredients.  Through exploration and experimentation members of Castro are able to broaden their culinary horizons.

            However, there is a limit to which these horizons can be broadened, as Castro does not blindly purchase food.  Most food either comes from the BSC’s Central Food and Services department, local Berkeley farmers markets, or from Earl’s Organic Produce.  There is a focus on food that is local and organic, with as little processed foods as possible.  As well, all orders are done with vegetarians, vegans, members with celiac disease, or other limiting factors in mind.  This means that even when cooking at one’s own discretion the house’s food options still shape what is possible, and in doing so people are, in a way, forcibly immersed into the food environment created at Castro.  As Harbringer also points out, “the BSC has made vegan diets seem a lot more approachable and simple to me” (Harbringer).  As well Sophie Kang relays that Castro’s “food environment has helped expose [her] to a lot of foods [she had] never eaten before” (Kang).  This controlled environment helps to generate a cohesive atmosphere that in conjunction with the environment formed by group dinners makes up the food environment of Andres Castro Arms.

            The environment that is created is one that honors different members ways of life and culinary approaches.  As described by those interviewed it is one that increases awareness and skepticism about food.  It is one encourages seasonality and healthy choices and options.  The food environment is one that encourages mindfulness of alternative diets and new methods of cooking (Freitis; Kang; Winger).  However, by limiting what is purchased there are also boundaries that are created by Castro’s food environment.  As Martin Jones points out “[f]ood avoidance is repeatedly a strategy for demarcating communities, establishing who belongs and who does not, who is friend and who is foe” (Jones 163).  Therefore, if one does not feel comfortable with the food practices or environment that is created at Castro, there is an opportunity for a sense of alienation to arise.  This potential outcome that is also noted by Harbringer who expressed that Castro’s food environment and situation is one “with its own normativity [that] is outside the norms of greater America or even greater Berkeley” (Harbringer).  Yet, even with this potential for alienation, a majority of the accounts point towards growth in regards to member’s perspectives on foods, even if the politics expressed through Castro’s food environment are rather one sided.

            Several of the people interviewed relayed that since moving into Castro they have eaten out less, due to the nearly constant availability of food at the co-op.  Lia Freitis, for example, pointed out that when she goes out she actively chooses to eat less meat (Freitis). However, on the other hand, several interviewees admit to splurging when going out to eat.  Sophie Kang acknowledges ordering things that the house doesn’t normally have when dining out, and Cameron Musser expresses that she tends to eat more meat when not eating at Castro (Kang; Musser).  Yet, even then, those who admit to splurging also acknowledge more awareness of what they are eating, as well as a conscious avoidance of processed and “junk” foods.  One of the most important take away points from this is that, regardless of how members interact with the food environment of the outside world, there is almost always an increased awareness and perception surrounding the foods one eats.

            The food at Castro is not merely a means of sustenance.  Food functions as a direct player in the house’s function and culture.  Castro’s collective dinners present well-balanced and healthy meals, along with calling attention to various consumption restrictions of house members.  The ability for individuals to cook allows for self-led exploration and the growth of food knowledge and culinary technique.  Most importantly, though, it is an environment that creates and allows for discussion, one that allows for the growth and articulation of individual ideas and opinions.  It allows for fruitful discourse that leads to a deeper investigation of Castro’s and one’s own culinary landscape.  And it is this freedom of expression that makes Andres Castro Arm’s food environment so spectacular.


Full works cited available upon request.