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Unhappy with your college dining hall? Start a co-op.

Members of the Pyle Inn Co-op at Oberlin College in the fall of 2016. (Courtesy of Pyle Inn Co-op)

College dining hall food gets a bad rap, sometimes deservedly so. College meal plans can be expensive, and the food choices and availability can be limited. As a result, some students who are passionate about affordable, ethical and healthful food have taken control of what they eat by forming food co-ops. There are successful student-run co-ops at the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Maryland and Oberlin College, among others.

Some food co-ops are as simple as a bulk-buying club while others go so far as to include housing. No matter the model, college co-ops offer more than a low-cost, healthy and environmentally friendly meal. They are ultimately communities of like-minded people, a safe place to discuss important issues, and a gathering place for students to regularly connect when the college or university feels large and faceless.

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Recent Oberlin graduate India Wood said joining the Ohio school’s Pyle Inn Co-op was one of her best college decisions because “it gave me a community to come to every day, a comfortable, happy place . . . It took away the stress of navigating classes and then finding people to eat a meal with . . . I knew exactly when my meals were and who I’d be eating with. It removed drama I didn’t need.”

Most food co-ops expect members to work in the co-op for a designated number of hours each week, either as a food planner, food buyer, a line or head cook or on cleanup. Most tasks can be worked around class schedules.

Many co-ops have a political or environmental bent. Some are fairly zealous — they may skew vegan or refuse to allow sugar in their kitchens. Others are more relaxed in their rules and food choices. A majority encourage regular discussions about food issues, food choices and the menus served. Nutrition coordinators are common; their job is to ensure the head cooks are meeting the dietary restrictions of every member.

I asked Wood if she ate more healthfully because she was a part of Pyle, which is the oldest and largest co-op at Oberlin. I was surprised by her answer: “That’s a tough one. There is a myth at Oberlin that eating in a co-op makes you healthier. The ingredient list is always provided but you never know exactly how much oil is used or how much protein is in a dish” as it isn’t as regulated as a school-run dining hall.

Sometimes, she said, she went hungry because “I didn’t like the food, or maybe the lentils were undercooked.” On other days, when there were delicious meals, “I found myself eating too much because I didn’t know when I would get another meal this tasty.” But she added that being in the co-op taught her to cook, a skill she values now that she’s on her own. “It also made me a much less picky eater and more aware of how I eat, such as having three real meals a day and always putting vegetables on my plate.”

Hnin W. Hnin, executive director of the organization Co-FED, which helps college students start food co-ops, said the greatest challenge involves handling conflict. “Young people don’t always have the tools to address community conflict or they can be conflict-averse,” she said. “Working with friends can be hard, and there can be a challenge in how to keep people accountable.” She added that the co-ops often become a safe place to discuss issues unrelated to food, such as race, gender, and sexual harassment. Managing these discussions “is a lot of responsibility for a 19-year-old or a group of 19-year-olds.” In addition to helping students handle conflict in a co-op, Co-FED can support students with issues such as addressing diversity and even dealing with sexual assault.

Because heading to college can be overwhelming, finding people who share your passions and interests, and a space where you can all come together daily to enjoy a home-cooked meal and an authentic conversation can make it all more manageable. As India Wood explained, “There is beauty in eating in a community, and bonding over what it is like to be in this community together.”

If a school doesn’t have a co-op, students can launch their own. Here are some initial steps, based on input from Hnin and Co-FED, which helps students with challenges such as working with a school’s administration, paying vendors, securing space on campus and establishing training programs.

* Hnin says, “Start with your community, listen to what folks are saying around you. If there is an unmet need on campus relating to food, then likely other people are dealing with it, too.”

* Don’t take no for an answer from the administration. Keep asking different people.

* Find allies across campus, such as student groups related to food, business students who could help craft a financial plan, designers to create visuals and student leaders.

* Create the community before you create the space. Host meetings, potlucks, and parties to launch your efforts.

* Get to know decision-makers in campus offices such as student life and sustainability.

* Don’t reinvent the wheel when you don’t have to. Use existing resources from such as grant applications and business plans, and participate in Co-FED’s summer trainings.

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