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Co-op profiles: Vegan Co-op

This article was originally published on Feb. 23, 2015.

Vegan Co-op was formed in fall 2011 by Rachel McCarty’14, previously a member of Big Spoon Dining Co-op. Her friend Clara Baker’13, co-founder of Big Spoon, encouraged her to form her own co-op, as McCarty was vegan. The Co-op originally ate in Japan House, but have since shared the kitchen in the basement of 609 Emerson.

This semester, the Co-op is 14 members, the largest it has ever been. There have never been more than three vegans; this semester, there are two, though many members are vegetarian.

Hana Vackova’15, who has been a member since Fall 2012 and makes raw desserts for Co-op, describes the changes in the group dynamics. In the very beginning, “We had all these ideas, like we started picking and dehydrating apples that we sort of tried to be more active – it wasn’t just about eating,” she says. “And then that interest dwindled, and more people joined who were just interested in the eating part, and less into bonding and activism.”

However, Ellen Wanecke’15, who joined Fall 2013, thinks the Co-op has become more intentional about the communal and experimental aspects. “People seemed pretty excited about having skill shares happen,” she says. “I think we all want to learn new skills.”

Maddie Hart’17, who joined this semester, hopes to teach a workshop on natural herbal remedies and spread awareness about processed foods, and Wanecke has mentioned leading a workshop on natural dyes using plants. Just last Wednesday, the Co-op invited Chef Michael Downey over to teach a cutting lesson and share a meal. He taught members different ways to cut a carrot and peel a turmeric root (the secret is to use a spoon rather than a peeler).

When McCarty was forming the Co-op, she reached out to a number of different local farms in the area, hoping to form a workshare partnership with one. Scotch Hill Farm, a certified organic family farm in Brodhead, WI, responded well to the student initiative. This workshare opportunity has been very important to many members.

When the climate permits, members of Co-op drive about half an hour northwest and spend their Saturday (and sometimes Sunday) early afternoons helping out with any tasks — harvesting, feeding animals, pickling and even making soap. At the end of the shift, Tony and Della Ends, the owners, reward them with about a box or two of vegetables.

Besides the workshare component, members also enjoy being part of a small community. Safari Fang’15, who joined Fall 2012, says Big Spoon, which tends to have about 20 members, was too big for her, and she enjoys the emphasis on experimentation. “We just make food from the ingredients we have. There is a lot of love in the food,” she says. Meetings are held on Wednesdays to talk about any issues and make decisions, and there is a go-around question to start the meal each night to encourage bonding.

“I see food as the ultimate community building tool as it allows us to share nourishment with one another,” says Alayne Benecke’16, a transfer student who has worked as a small scale natural foods producer and sustainability educator. Though she is not vegan, “I intentionally reduce my consumption of dairy for reasons of environmental efficiency and health.”

Two people cook each night, and one person washes dishes. One person manages finances; the Co-op tends to cost around $100 each semester, but can be less during the fall when members  get more produce from Scotch Hill Farm. Because of the experimental nature of the Co-op, meals can vary greatly, but cooks try to aim for at least three components. Members enjoy bread and dessert at least a few times per week, but there isn’t always a strict schedule.

Though veganism may be gaining popularity, “I think people have some misconceptions about vegan food and cooking,” Wanecke says.

Vackova and Fang stress that though they joined the Co-op to be more intentional about their food, eating vegan is not necessarily healthier or more ethical. The Co-op tries to balance buying local and possibly organic while staying within a student budget.

Emma Guttchen’15, who joined Fall 2012, agrees, adding, “Just because it’s organic food doesn’t make it better.”

Social identity is another factor to consider. “Veganism and foodie-ism is associated with whiteness and the upper middle class. We need to make it more of an intentional space so people feel comfortable,” Vackova says.

Because the 609 kitchen is a popular cooking space on campus, the group tries to be aware of its presence. The Co-op has its own fridge, and ingredients, plates and silverware are stored on a rack. There are posters encouraging responsibility for dishwashing, as well as displaying the Co-op’s values and intentions.

Accountability can be difficult in such a high traffic area. “A lot of people take stuff and never give it back.” Last semester, the Co-op had to replace both of its pots after they inexplicably disappeared. “But this isn’t unique to 609. Every space has issues with dishes,” she says.

Looking towards the future, Vegan Co-op will have at least half of its members gone next semester, either graduating or going abroad. It can be “hard to have consistency because there’s always turnover,” Vackova says.

“I don’t think many people know about the co ops or exactly what being in a co op is. I wish people knew they are just a really fun and super chill way to eat a meal everyday,” Wanecke says.

The group plans to continue hosting guests, and encourages anyone interested in joining — or just sharing a meal — to contact someone in the group. Last semester, the Co-op hosted Nikki Werner, visiting art professor, and Carol Wickersham, Director of Community-Based Learning.

Benecke would also like to see more awareness and engagement with co-ops. “Co-ops are the future as we transition our money away from corporations toward our local communities,” she says. “There is so much empowerment in being more closely connected to your food and the people you are sharing it with. We need to build on our successes and continue to encourage collaborations around campus.”

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