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Parents help campus address food insecurity, other basic needs

By David Peterkofsky

When Josie Shiff’s son, Jake, arrived at UC Berkeley as a freshman in 2018, she looked for an opportunity to connect with his new academic home as a volunteer.

A friend pointed Shiff in the direction of the Cal Parents Board, suggesting that it was a great way to meet other parents and to learn the inner workings of the university. But serving on the board has done much more than that for Shiff — it’s also opened her eyes to the often invisible issue of basic needs insecurity among today’s college students.

Since joining the board, Shiff has devoted much of her time and energy to the Basic Needs Center, which since 2014 has provided accessible and ongoing economic, food, and housing support to university community members in need. Shiff’s work has specifically focused on the UC Berkeley Food Pantry, which she’s supported financially and with her time, including working on site.

“I’m embarrassed to say that I was surprised by how many students need the services provided by the Basic Needs Center,” said Shiff, who lives in Woodside, Calif., with her husband, Stuart Shifff, a 1988 Berkeley graduate. “To witness the affluence of the Bay Area in particular and to realize that more than 12,000 undergraduates and 2,700 graduate students struggle with food and housing insecurity is tragic and unacceptable.”

For Shiff, it’s also a worthy cause that resonates with her personally. “My family struggled financially when I was a child,” she recalled. “The fact that I am able to help at this point in my life is truly rewarding for me personally.”

The center’s leadership plays a pivotal role in encouraging volunteers like Josie Shiff and other Berkeley parents to get involved. Most notably, that leadership comes from 2012 graduate Ruben Canedo — who serves as director of equity initiatives within Berkeley’s Division of Equity & Inclusion, and speaks passionately about the urgency of the center’s services among the university community.

In January, Canedo made a presentation to an ad hoc Basic Needs Parent Advisory Committee, which Shiff joined, on the need to help underserved students, inspiring many of its members to get involved with the center. Just a few months later, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made the need for the center even clearer.

“Students from low-income communities who previously were already experiencing systemic issues like poverty, racism, being disenfranchised from the circle of care — that’s all become more challenging because of COVID,” said Canedo, who himself grew up in a mixed-immigration-status family in Southern California. “For some of our students, it’s been an economic issue that’s become heightened. That causes friction and harm for them.”

Though the 2020–21 school year began with the vast majority of students not on campus due to the coronavirus, Canedo says the Basic Needs Center and Food Pantry still can make a difference in students’ lives by staying true to its core values of belonging and justice. To that end, the center’s offerings this fall include virtual counseling services, food assistance and advice on terminating leases.

Canedo also proudly cited the center’s work in the virus-shortened spring 2020 semester, during which it teamed up with more than a dozen campus groups to provide relief to students in need, offering everything from food to emergency housing support.

“It’s incredible to see that a massive bureaucratic institution like ours could have a human-based approach,” he said. “We found ways to say yes to our students.”

Canedo was quick to point out that the path to helping the Cal community meet its basic needs is made smoother by parent involvement.

“They just get it — they understand,” he said of parent volunteers. “I don’t have to legitimize this discussion with our parent community. That’s where it feels affirming. They volunteer and they show up. They’ve fed our students for years. Some have provided financial resources; they’re just moved and compelled by the data. They believe in our vision, and they know that insecurity won’t be solved by emergency resources.”

Shiff, for one, echoed Canedo’s boldly worded sentiments. And she’s got a word of advice for any Cal parents who might be looking for a way to give back to the university. “Spend one hour in the Food Pantry and see how thoughtfully the center is run,” she said. “Talk to the kids, hear their stories, and you’ll be inspired to be a part of this glorious place.

“Oh,” she added. “And spend five minutes with Ruben.”

To join the Cal Parents advisory committee and/or support the Basic Needs Center and UC Berkeley Food Pantry, contact Rose Hsu at


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