Embracing Co-op Living: The Harkness experience

My first introduction to cooperatives came when I was a seventeen year old high school senior visiting my perspective college, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, during spring break. I had heard about co-ops on the Oberlin ,Ohio campus but did not really know much more than that they provided an alternative to the dining halls and that one of them, Harkness, offered vegetarian cuisine. So of course, after making sure that all of the practice rooms in the Conservatory of Music had garden view. a visit to Harkness was high on my list of priorities.

When I first walked into the Harkness kitchen, a woman named Ronni gave me a warm welcome and proceeded to explain about co-op life at Oberlin. I stared wide-eyed as she showed me the bins full of homemade granola, homemade tofu, and loaves of freshly baked bread, which is baked six times a week by students at Harkness. In addition,  co-op members also make yogurt and sprouts. Ronni explained to me that Harkness is one of the (then) six operating dining cooperatives comprising  OSCA, the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association. Each member of an Oberlin cooperative has weekly responsibilities, usually equal to four hours a week of work. Jobs vary from washing dishes and kitchen preparation to purchasing the food and planning the menus. Students are admitted to Harkness and the other dining and living cooperatives at Oberlin via lottery.

Having had a satisfactory introduction to co-op life, I was delighted when I found out that I had made it into the lottery to eat at Harkness during my Freshman year. Subsequently, the following year, I was also accepted into the Harkness dormitory. During my two years at Harkness, I worked many different capacities. I learned how to cook dinners and breakfasts for large quantities of people. I also learned how to plan menus that were not only nutritious and well balanced but also flavorful and tasty. However, my favorite job of all was the post of “Leftovers Coordinator”, which I shared with my best friend and roommate, Katie. Little did I know the adventures that lay before me.

Being Leftovers Coordinator at Harkness Co-op was not something to take lightly. One had to prepare delicious and nutritious meals that were somewhat fresh and exciting using the remnants of previously served meals. Leftover meals were generally served on Tuesdays during lunch and Sunday dinners. Katie and I used our creative abilities and general enthusiasm to make every effort to provide interesting meals in hopes that all of the leftovers would be consumed. However, I grew more and more dismayed when we would still have to throw out food at the end of the week. I knew that there must be another solution,somehow.

The answer came to me during one of my weekly bicycle rides through the Ohio farmlands. One Sunday morning, I came upon a rural orphanage in which everything seemed run down. With a little further investigation, I learned that these children were very poor and could benefit from some good nutrition. So, it was not long before giving leftover food from Harkness Co-op to Sister Purity’s orphanage became a regular weekly event. This was able to take place because a number of people with a shared vision were able to work together in a cooperative manner through many tasks that included purchasing food, cooking, and coordinating leftovers, in order to serve the greater community at large.

Embracing cooperative dining and living during my years at Oberlin was the beginning of a lifelong involvement in the cooperative movement, which eventually lead me to the Honest Weight Food Coop. At Honest Weight, as in Harkness, we all have opportunities in which we can express our creativity and utilize our unique talents in order to serve our community. And this is what the true cooperative sprit exemplifies.