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CoFED, the Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive, supports over 40 student teams in regions across North America. CoFED serves as a network and training program that empowers students to create ethically-sourced, cooperatively-run food enterprises on college campuses. AASHE recently spoke with founder and Co-Director Yoni Landau and Danny Spitzberg, Lead Trainer and Co-Director. Continue reading to learn more about CoFED initiatives, challenges, and where they see the future of student organizing for sustainable food.

What are CoFED’s main areas of focus within the food systems sustainability movement, and how does CoFED fit into the larger, global movement toward a low-carbon, more sustainable future?

YoniYoni: CoFED is primarily a network of student leaders and peer-facilitated trainings. We help sustainability-minded students gain the skills they need to create their values in the world after they graduate. And, CoFED helps them develop a delicious platform to bring their peers into the movement. Student teams supported by CoFED are creating community-oriented, ethically-sourced food ventures. This has real potential for positive impact. Consumption is a big part of the story, but production is a bigger part of a story rarely told – meat production alone is said to account for as much as 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions. If we are going to address climate change and environmental damage, we need to address this major polluter through education and alternatives.

DannyDanny: For institutions of higher education, their impact goes beyond direct economic value or research and knowledge. Before a student comes into college, they may have never made real decisions for themselves – this is a time where identities, values, and habits coalesce and ideally, with career paths that align with those values. If we are serious about mitigating climate change, we need agricultural reform on a large scale. We must build a diverse, thriving and resilient movement that can both demand and create change in our food system – as cooperative organizers, leaders, and entrepreneurs.

Where do you see CoFED in the next five years in terms of programs and impact?

Danny: In five years, we will have thriving member storefronts on roughly 40 campuses and we will have trained several thousand student leaders. Any university that wants to empower their students with this model should have the ability to do so. We’ll get there by evolving our resources so that models can pay competitive rent, provide positive, valuable educational experiences, and by helping our regional networks of students thrive with support from mentors and CoFED alumni alike – those are some of our more immediate plans.

Yoni: Also, students empowered by CoFED will be running people for office in several states, and others will be creating student-worker hybrid cooperative foodservice operations on campuses across the continent. OK, I might have made that one up….or did I…?

What are the main challenges for CoFED?

Danny: Student turnover is our greatest asset and most motivating liability. We see ourselves as a network of cooperative leaders and cooperative entrepreneurs, and getting involved means building your group and replacing yourself in the process! We’re fairly clear about what we mean by those terms – the function of cooperative leadership is to empower more leaders, and the aim of cooperative entrepreneurship is to pursue opportunities for collective gain through directly democratic means. So, most of our programming – our organizing, our coaching, the events we run – focuses on seeding and growing healthy institutional memory and an eager network to support it on campus and between schools, too. They take deep interest in their different projects and become friends and peer-mentors.

How do you track progress and success throughout the organization, and how is CoFED doing by those measures?

Yoni: Back in the Fall of 2010, we projected it would take most teams at least 2 years of organizing to open a storefront – after nearly two years of doing this work, we’re happy to say that we’re hitting that target with folks in New Mexico opening a storefront (and being asked to expand!) and 5 start-up teams that have raised over $150,000. We’ll likely see a few more cafés and grocery operations open in 2013, too.

How do you see the role of student activism in the campus sustainability movement?

Danny: Any significant change needs people pulling the mainstream along and people pushing at the fringes. Students are and should be pushing at the edges – creating the next innovative idea or demanding that we move away from the status quo. Students are also quick to see and feel the connections between sustainability and race, class, and gender issues, as well as the privilege of education and opportunity. Anti-oppression principles and practices are fundamental to our work, as we strive for inclusivity. If we are going to have a “movement” that includes communities that are traditionally marginalized, it’s almost definitely going to be led, in large part, by young people.

How is CoFED working to forge partnerships with other like-minded organizations and individuals?

Yoni: The Real Food Challenge initially incubated our training and has been a big brother to us since the beginning. Thanks, friends!
We have literally dozens of coalition allies, from Slow Money to NASCO to Net Impact, groups we respect deeply and learn from. It’s so important to take the time to meet the other folks in the room, from figuring out what database tools, to using their training resources, to being inspired to work smarter by their successes.
It’s vital to have a broad coalition not because every project needs to be a partnership, but because when something bigger than all of us is ready to happen, like federal policy around climate change or significant food systems reform, having relationships of trust in place makes it possible.

How does CoFED encourage students to effect top-down change from the senior administration of the university or college?

Danny: “Top-down” change happens when a critical mass of people organize to demand it as citizens, not mere consumers. Campus life has more in common with the rest of a students life before and after, except that education is the explicit focus, and idealism may be at an all-time high. CoFED harnesses idealism and pragmatism to show how another world is possible, and actively being created. We want that idealism to continue straight on after higher education.

Has there been a particular “aha” moment for you while working on campus sustainability issues?

Yoni: The first workshop that CoFED ever ran was at the California Student Sustainability Summit (organized by California Student Sustainability Coalition) where we had about 20 students from across the state and we all shared how we’d like to bring sustainability to our campuses. We shared our visions for a community space and food business, plotted out some steps and did skits to share back.
To wrap-up, everyone did a one-word check-out, “How do you feel?”
Ryan, the quiet student from Cal Poly in the corner said “inspiregized!”
Most of youth today wants to create a just and sustainable economy – we need the vision, we need the tools, and we need the support network.
We still use that word to describe our trainings (thanks, Ryan)!

What is your advice for students who are trying to get more involved in the campus sustainable food movement?

Danny: Be curious, and always open your perspective to what others tell you. Also, be realistic and be specific. Many projects start hot, but most burn out and disappear when they become mired in mud, that grueling phase one that students organizing at UCLA refer to as the “do-ocracy,” the lack of group direction and no coordination.

Yoni: Be respectful with administrators. Do not waste their time or their wisdom. Most will want to help you if you aren’t asking too much and present yourself as organized and thoughtful. Be bold. “No” doesn’t usually mean “no”, it means “maybe” – if you address all my concerns and hold me accountable.

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