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Making mealtimes more enjoyable: Co-ops on Campus

Michael Carter, staff writer emeritus

Preston House residents being interviewed by The Echo

Campus food co-operatives provide interesting alternatives for students dissatisfied with Gladfelter and Cowpie dining options. Common complaints regarding the meal plan system include the regimented time schedules, lack of diverse food options as well as nutritional concerns. Within a co-op, food options are more varied and schedules more flexible.

A food co-op on the College campus shares a predetermined, semester-long budget for food. The budget, calculated by the College, is a fraction of what the co-op students would pay if they were on the designated 21-meal-per-week plan. Co-op members then use this budget to purchase and cook their own food.

There are currently two co-ops on campus – the Preston House, with eigh

t members, and the Village, which has nine. The number of members is an important aspect of a campus food co-op; 7-10 students is ideal for the budget because the amount is large enough to have the necessary funds for food and small enough to keep funds manageable.

There are advantages to being part of a student co-op as opposed to a meal plan. This adjustable meal option meets the needs of the average Warren Wilson student and their busy schedule. With co-ops, one has the opportunity to eat what you want, when you want it, which has its benefits.

“[There is] a lot more freedom,” said senior Hannah Goldwater, who is part of a sub-group of the Village co-op. “I don’t want veggie burgers every Friday.”

Joining a co-op comes with responsibilities as well. Meals need to be cooked and shopping needs to be done for the system to work well. Cooking meals is often an enjoyable activity for co-op members.

“I love cooking,” said sophomore and Village co-op member Melody Miller. “Part of why I’m [at the co-op] is because our meal plan is pretty good compared to other colleges, but not how I want to eat. It’s great to tailor your eating to your own needs.”

However, with co-op cooking comes compromises. Often the diets of members differ, requiring sensitivity toward what the co-op purchases and eats.

“We have shifted to accommodate what other people cook,” senior and Preston House co-op member Heather Sevcik said. “It turns out great and now I know what’s in my food.”

Being a part of a co-op also teaches the valuable skill of independence through cooking.

“It’s a huge element of being self sufficient,” said sophomore Melissa McLamb, a member of the Village co-op. “Learning to feed yourself is a lifelong skill.”

The nutritional value of co-op food is also appreciated by it members.

“I’m conscious of where food comes from, like buying local, even though it’s not always possible. And buying organic when it’s not too expensive,” Miller said.

Joining a co-op allows students to eat more independently and also teaches them about post-college realities like budgeting, a large part of co-op life. The Preston House functions on a budget divided equally among the eight members. This amounts to $1.56 a day per person. That is less than the cost of a chocolate-chip cookie from the vending machine in lower Gladfelter.

When asked how her co-op operates on such a tight budget, Miller replied that her fellow co-op members frequently shop at Amazing Savings, a discount grocery store.

The Preston House co-op takes a do-it-yourself approach to cutting costs. They make many foods from scratch – foods which, at an average grocery store, would normally be more expensive. These include yogurt, tempe, sauerkraut, granola, bread and applesauce. The Village co-op regularly buys produce from the Wilson garden. Both co-ops make an efforts to buy in bulk whenever possible and refrain from buying value-added products like packaged cookies or name brand cereals.

Both co-ops, however, continue to grapple with finances.

“We get quite a small amount. It’s amazing we can function; if we were out in the real world, it would be hard,” said Sevcik.

Preston House resident Elisa Otter with a jar of milk from the WWC farm

The reason for the co-ops’ small allotment is logistical; the meal plan price per student, when being calculated, takes into account total operating costs for Sodexo. According to Jon Ehrlich, vice president for administration and finance, these costs include food, materials, maintenance, salaries of Sodexo employees and a portion of students’ salaries. The budget for campus co-ops comes from the food costs per student of Sodexo which are relatively low per student due to bulk purchasing. Co-ops survive on this return of their money which does not include their contribution to Sodexo’s operating costs.

“I personally wouldn’t want to take anything away from a [Sodexo employee's] paycheck,” said senior and Village co-op member Greta Strautman on the budget allotment of her co-op.

Another challenge co-ops face is the disconnect from others’ dining hours. Meal times present opportunities to socialize, and co-op members, by eating their meals separately from others, can significantly miss out on interacting with others.

“Meal times are such a social time and [co-op members] don’t get as much time to socialize at meals,” Goldwater said.

Co-ops compensate for this disadvantage with more co-op bonding time.

“[Co-ops] create more of a community around food, which makes meal times more enjoyable and more fulfilling,” said sophomore MaKailah McKinley.

The popularity of campus co-ops is an indicator of a growing awareness of the importance of what and how we eat. The co-op system fosters camaraderie between its members, establishing a sense of community.

Said McKinley on her co-op experience, “it’s not so much co-dependent as it is co-operative.”

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