Bennington Sustainable Food Project: Co-op in Upcaf

By Tenara Calem ’15 and Dānia Clarke ’15

Bennington College’s Co-op

The Bennington Sustainable Food Project is currently making headway with their plans to begin selling baked goods and coffee out of the UpCafe by the Student Center. In getting the food co-op started, members of the Sustainable Food Group were in communication with Student Life about opening a space to bring the concept to life. Initially, they were provided with an office space in Upcafe to host meetings. The rest of the development stemmed from working with Sage Ober and Samantha Tymchyn. If all goes according to plan, they will officially start selling coffee to students within the next two weeks.

The BSFP is working closely with Tymchyn, whose office is currently located in UpCafe to integrate the co-op as a semi-permanent fixture of the space. The hope is that the co-op would be able to sell dried goods from local sources, as well as the expected treats one would find at a BSFP booth at Sunfest or other Bennington events.

The co-op seems to be operating on the shared consensus that UpCafe is not living up to its potential as a public space. At their meeting, several members, including Tymchyn, remarked on the unfortunate reality that even if only one person is occupying the room, it keeps other students at bay. While the room is optimal for groups like DREAM, who need a large space, its potential to be a shared, public place to do homework or relax in seems to be largely wasted on most of the student body. The hope is that the BSFP can change that. A topic currently in discussion is what alternative space could the co-op be located so that it would be more convenient and practical for faculty and staff, as Upcafe is generally a student-inhabited space. The co-op is meant to cater to all of Bennington’s residents, not only to students. “The co-op would make it feel like a public space,” says member Brendan Tang (’16?). There is talk of buying new furniture to create a coffee-shop vibe, á la South Street Café. Members of the co-op also seemed avidly enthusiastic about using the space as a student- run gallery (also reminiscent of South Street). The final vision? UpCafe might actually be a café: .a place where students and staff can spend down time, do homework, and get some much needed quality coffee.

The dining hall and co-op are considering collaborating in the future. Let’s say the co-op wanted to sell baked goods, they would need to deal with state health laws. However, “If the co-op was able to use the bakery in commons, that would take care of safety issues,” said Ben Szalewicz. Working with the dining hall, a licensed establishment, and possibly Aramark (the food provider that will be serving Bennington starting in July,) would ensure that the co-op has the legal ability to make and vend their own food.

The Co-op seems to be making significant headway on their plans, and this comes as a mildly cynical surprise. The nature of Bennington's administrative culture, at least in terms of academics, is one of an impressive amount of bureaucracy. Though the Co-op's plans seem to be known to administration, the attitude within the Co-op is highly “do-it-yourself”. Even Tymchyn herself admitted that “the more people you bring into the conversation, the longer it takes.” While no one seems to have told the Co-op that these plans were unobtainable, it appears that the Co-op is purposefully trying to limit the number of people in the conversation.

This could have some negative back-bite. While the UpCafe is certainly not used nearly as much as it could be, it also has the convenience of being an easily transformable space. Would the Co-op's ultimate goals (i.e. cafe-style chairs, gallery pieces) take away from this malleability?

This is just one in a number of changes in food distribution at Bennington College. At the meeting, there was additional talk of the Office of Student Life buying their coffee from the BSFP. Though plans for Commons Renovations are certainly rough at best, the general idea is that once the transformation is complete, the Student Center wouldn't be selling food at all. It all comes down to what kind of food should be available to Bennington students. With Aramark coming in as the large company bringing us small-town, local food, the BSFP's presence only further cements those philosophies. It's unsurprising that every new food-related development seems to be heading in the direction of local food production – what's surprising is that it took the school and administration this long to get to this point.

What is a co-op?

According to the Cooperative Development Foundation, cooperative groups, in one way or another, were providing alternative means of food distribution since early colonial times in the United States, pulling inspiration from similar groups in the United Kingdom. The most lasting model of alternative food distribution came from the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society, a group in late nineteenth century in England that dedicated their self-determination in the wake of a textile mill strike to take control of their food supply.

In the United States, food co-ops seemed to have been born out of necessity during the Great Depression. “In rural and urban areas alike, consumer co-ops were first organized to provide consumers with control and to fight the unfair practices of private and company stores.” The cooperative groups we're more familiar with today were a result of the counter-culture of the 1960s that facilities administration promoted a deviation from mass-produced food, making headway in the “natural-foods industry”.

Currently, food co-ops are actually quite popular in many other colleges and universities. The University of Washington Student Food Cooperative (UWSFC) provides a network of staple foods in bulk that are both high quality and affordable. They obtain local foods so that the products are always fresh. Part of their motive for running the co-op, is to support and and promote the UW Farm and other local growers, in addition to feeding the students healthy and affordable meals. UC Berkely’s Student Food Collective includes packaged goods, bulk foods, refrigerated items, fresh coffee and pastries, and natural cleaning and beauty products. Some food co-ops are very diverse within their own supply. Princeton University currently has three co-ops: the Vegetarian Co-op, the Brown Food Cooperative, and the International Food Co-op. The Vegetarian Co-op, (surprise surprise) consists of only vegetarian foods (no fish, poultry or meat but including milk, eggs, cheese, yogurt and other dairy products). The Brown Food Cooperative includes meat and they prepare their own meals. Members of the International Food Co-op cook cuisines from many different countries, allowing for a wide assortment of food.

The beauty of starting this type of project at Bennington, is that it is relatively easy for students to put their proposals into action without going through endless procedures with administration because nothing is really institutionalized; there is a lot of freedom in generating organizations. On the other hand, it may become a challenge to keep the structure as is for a span of three years, as we are in the process of undergoing a significant amount of reconstruction and re-shaping of campus affairs.

Malia Guyer-Stevens