Klipsun Magazine

Campus Co-op

Story by Farah Hirji and Eric Schmitz // Photos by Eric Schmitz

Walking into the Viking Union Market, a thick smell of frying grease overpowers everything else. Hungry patrons shuffle through, making selections from a variety of lunch items. But, burgers, fries, pizza, sandwiches, fruits and beverages are not a welcome sight to everyone, especially Western sophomore Brendan Lind.

Lind, student coordinator for Students for Sustainable Food, says he initially envisioned Western as a leader in sustainability and environmental responsibility, but the menu options on campus don't support the sustainable lifestyle he has chosen.

As a Western freshman, Lind joined Students for Sustainable Food after learning about the organization at the campus information fair. Talking with other students, Lind heard many concerns about the lack of organic, local, healthy food available to students on campus. The idea of a food co-op bounced around their discussions for a while, until Lind decided to pursue it.

Lind envisions a student-run on-campus co-op as being a place to listen to music, display art and promote academia, a relaxed environment where patrons can study and socialize with friends. He wants to incorporate the ideas of any interested students and groups on campus to create a welcoming environment for the Western community.

"We want a place where students' energy, creativity and passions run every aspect of the business," Lind says. "We want to go beyond our differences and become a melting pot that brings Western students together to form the kind of community we can all be proud of."

Currently, the French multinational corporation Sodexo manages all of Western's dining services, excluding those on Vendors Row. Sodexo is one of the largest food services and management facilities in the world, servicing schools, hospitals, military mess halls and prisons across the country.

Over the past year, Western's Dining Services brought more local food to Western's palate. Lynden's BelleWood apples, Wasabee's ready-made sushi, Fair Trade Coffee and the Underground Coffee House's local sandwich ingredients are all steps towards environmental stewardship, Lind says. However, the bulk of Western students' diets are not composed merely of coffee, sushi and apples.

With the addition of Chic-fil-A, students are questioning the Western administration and taking action to uphold the sustainable values taught in Western classrooms.

Lind says he questions why Western didn't choose a local company such as Fiamma Burger or Pel'mini, both of which support sustainable practices and are willing to serve the Western community.

"We can be local, sustainable, progressive, and still give people their chicken," Lind says.

Willy Hart, director of University Residences says they serve 40,000 meals a week through the residential dining program. Every year they try to bring local food to campus, but setting up relationships with local farmers and business owners is not a simple task.

"In late December, January and February not much is growing out of the ground that is local," Hart says. "We make the best choices we can, balancing sustainability and what we are able to produce."

Western humanities professor and local farmer Nicole Brown says her farm grows multiple produce items such as turnips, potatoes, peppers, onions and carrots, through November and storable items such as garlic, winter squash and potatoes through winter. These storable items can easily be combined with baked goods to provide wholesome meals. Local foods don't travel long distances compared to most food that travels about 1,500 to 2,000 miles to the consumer, Brown says.

Hart says the administration wants to help students get what they want within the boundaries of the university's current dining policies. Hart selected Kurt Willis from University Residences and Ira Simon from University Dining Services to work with Lind and Students for Sustainable Food to decide on menus, food suppliers, hours of operation and designs. Planning will continue over winter, spring and summer quarters with the co-op potentially opening in late fall.

The legal liability related to a farmer-direct on-campus co-op is the main hang up for Kurt Willis, associate director of University Residences.

"The biggest concerns of the university are risk management, liability exposures, insurance claims and health issues that could cause a world of grief," Willis says.

Western requires all food suppliers to have a $5 million insurance policy, Lind says, but small, sustainable farms can't afford such high policies.

In the co-op's business plan, Students for Sustainable Food requested that the insurance requirements be waived for the farmers and suppliers who can't afford the cost.

"If food is going to be served on this campus, there are certain parameters that are outlined by the university's food contract that need to be followed," Hart says.

The requirements are in place to protect the university in the case of a potential lawsuit.

The small farmer does not generate as much profit as corporations such as Sodexo. The goal of sustainable farms is to provide for a community with sustainable, locally grown food, without turning a large profit. In a corporate model, such as Sodexo, increasing profit requires mass production, which decreases the quality of food and quality of life for animals.

A report by London's City University looked at how companies responded to health targets set in 2004 by the World Health Organization to reduce obesity, heart disease and diabetes. The group studied annual reports, accounts and Web sites of the top 10 food manufacturers, food retailers and top five food service companies. Sodexo is listed as not acting adequately to cut excessive salt, fat and sugar which are contributing to a global diet-related health crisis.

Industrial farming also has detrimental effects on the environment. Sodexo utilizes factory farm practices that contribute to a wide range of environmental issues and the inhumane treatment of animals.

Fairhaven Professor John Tuxill explains that factory farms' excessive use of fertilizers and inadequate disposal of animal waste is causing a range of environmental catastrophes.

Lind watches the concepts he learns about, such as sustainable food practices, being implemented at Evergreen State College, but not at Western.

In Evergreen State College's Red Square a mobile trailer dubbed The Flaming Eggplant Cafˇ dishes out falafel pitas, salmon burgers, hot tea and an array of soups, grains, meats and salads with a menu that changes with the season.

Before the Flaming Eggplant co-op existed, students for food autonomy gathered in Evergreen's Red Square for potlucks. Eventually, the Student Activity Board added an initiative to the student ballot that called for two dollars for each credit taken by students to go to the creation of The Flaming Eggplant Cafˇ.

The initiative was passed by 87 percent of the student body in favor of the proposal. This brought in $122,000 for the Flaming Eggplant Cafˇ. It took one year after the influx of money to create the co-op that now brings in an average of $1,100 revenue each day open.

"Bureaucracy and policies were frustrating to get through. Now that it is up and running it's pretty incredible," said manager and cashier Julianne Panagacos.

Other student-run co-ops on the West Coast include University of British Columbia (UBC), Whitman College, University of Oregon, Portland State, University of Santa Barbara and University of California Davis.

Sprouts, UBC's on-campus co-op, is a great success, says Sprouts president Martin Gunst. They opened in January 2008 as a cafˇ and grocery store, and recently started a catering business. They are a 100 percent volunteer and student-run organization. Sprouts' cafˇ serves hot lunches, coffee, snacks and baked goods, and the grocery store sells organic, locally grown produce. Gunst says Sprouts is self-financing and self-sustaining. The store is almost always full and they sell out of their soups and baked goods every day.

Because Sprouts doesn't pay labor costs, they can afford to provide some of the healthiest and most sustainably produced food on campus at a low price, Gunst says, which reflects the university's commitment to sustainability.

Lind feels the co-op is an idea that will be appreciated by students, faculty and staff.

"This is something that has been done and succeeded before," Lind says.

As grants are written, benefit concerts planned, petitions begun and club support sought, excitement grows on Western's campus to better fulfill Western's vision of sustainability.

© 2008 Klipsun Magazine