Reflections of a co-op food manager

Residents gathered in the Cloyne Court kitchen.
Levon Minassian/Staff
Residents gathered in the Cloyne Court kitchen.

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Since the start of last fall semester, I have been one of two food managers at Cloyne Court, the largest house within the Berkeley Student Cooperative system.  I decided to run for the position the previous spring, when my fellow housemate Maddie Tien asked if I would join her in being responsible for food-related matters within our house of 150 members.

Food and kitchen managers in the Berkeley Student Cooperative are elected by the members of their houses, and their main tasks revolve around ordering food for common use and dinners. Some of the co-ops have only one, while larger houses like ours split the duties between two managers and have another two managers be in charge of the kitchen and its cleanliness. Our main job is to buy food for our respective houses based on the collective preferences of our members as well as a food budget that credits $9.35 per resident per day.

Each member has the ability to express dietary preferences regarding budget allocation through surveys, house meetings or other methods by which opinions are cultivated. This process occurs differently at each house, but a common norm is that members are very vocal about knowing where their food comes from and are eager to express their preferences. While some may see this as a privilege for students — not having to worry about eating enough food to get through college — I believe that this has been one of the most important values that living in the co-ops alerts you to and that will stay with members after they leave.

Having lived in Cloyne since Spring 2011, I’ve come to see multiple shifts in the house’s food preferences and simultaneous changes in the kinds of foods in the kitchen as well as a constant level of concern about where food has come from.  Sometimes, some voices would be much louder than others. Each semester, though, the debate within the house can be roughly boiled down to whether to buy with an environmentally responsible mindset or prioritize low costs, which surrounds the co-op’s mission statement of how to prioritize low cost and quality housing. While ordering food, I’ve tried to find a balance between the two concepts.

In determining how to find this balance, I’ve relied on our members’ constant comments and conversations to guide how I spend the budget. Some members only wanted organic quinoa cereals, and others preferred cereals laced in sugar. Some only wanted fair-trade chocolate chips, while others felt any chocolate chips were a staple, regardless of where they came from. Most of our members were happy with the cow we bought direct from a farmer in Petaluma, but I also received complaints that the levels of meat at dinners was both too high and too low. I only purchased organic produce, but whether we should buy in-season or local, depending on the price difference, also yielded differences of opinions. In our pantry, we purchased a mixture of organic dried goods, as well as commercial ones such as brown rice, to reduce costs.

My experience has convinced me that any time a large number college students are put in charge of feeding themselves, there is bound to be lots of disagreement. But living in a co-op, where members have an equal say and equal share, has ensured that these disagreements are resolved through deliberation and debate rather than arbitrary decision-making.

Holding the food manager position at Cloyne has given me the opportunity to have these conversations to determine what is best to order while incorporating the dietary preferences and concerns for the environment that our house has had.  I find great value in having them, because they have prompted me analyze where the food I order and eat comes from, how it is produced and whether it is cost-effective. When people see something in the way that food arrives on their plate that they don’t like, they should have the chance to voice their concerns about it. Being a part of the co-ops allows students to engage with the food system this way.

These conversations fulfill what I see as a simple responsibility we all have of knowing how our dietary habits affect the people that produce our food and the land it is produced on. One of the main things I have learned upon leaving Cloyne is that such dialogues need to be expanded in order for communities to understand how their diets relate to the issues of nutrition, food access, farm labor and environmental protection. The voices that I’ve been witnessing while ordering food over the past year makes me optimistic that such discussions are on the rise.

Contact Levon Minassian at [email protected]

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