Kirsten O'Brien/The AS Review

From seed to fork and from a garden to your plate, the members of the Associated Students club Students for Sustainable Food are trying to shorten the distance between you and your meals. The club is in the process of making sustainable, affordable and locally sourced food available on campus through the formation of a student-run food cooperative. For those involved, it’s not solely about food either. The co-op would be an environmentally friendly food source, relying on local food growers and helping foster a sense of community, in addition to teaching students how to cook their own delicious meals.

“We really feel that this is going to be a movement. It’s not just about food,” said Chelsea Enwall, a member of SSF who has been at the forefront of the effort to organize the formation of a student-run co-op. “It’s a way to look at environmental issues through the eyes of food.”

Enwall said that she thinks a student-run co-op could provide food options that Sodexo, the company that currently operates Western’s dining services, simply cannot. She said that having a co-op would give students the option of having food free of genetic engineering. It would also restore the connection between the community and the land. She said that the co-op would have a sustainable business model as well, which would give back whatever it received.

“We want something that will support us in the long run and we want it to be a place of giving and receiving,” Enwall said. “It’s a different way of looking at business that is not just from a purely financial side.”

Enwall added that she envisioned the co-op as being a place of self-expression, which is especially important if the university has to eliminate programs or services due to budget cuts.

Students for Sustainable Food member Chelsea Enwall collecting signatures from students in support of starting a co-op on campus. Photo by Joe Rudko/The AS Review.

“I personally feel like the budget cuts are taking away programs and we say, if you’re taking away our education, then why don’t we take the initiative and create something just for us?” she asked.

Enwall came to Western in Fall 2010 after two years of traveling and then working with Greenpeace. She was surprised to see that there wasn’t already a student-run food co-op on campus. There had been a huge push for a co-op in the past, but the most recent effort fizzled out in 2009, Enwall said.

After participating in a food security workshop with students from the University of Washington and Washington State University, Enwall began reviving the effort to form a co-op using the business plan written by the original student group as a jumping-off point. The effort has been gaining momentum ever since. She said there are about eight people who attend Students for Sustainable Food meetings regularly. The group meets every Wednesday at 3 p.m. in Viking Union 464.

“We have a really awesome core team. We have a lot of energy and a lot of ideas, and right now we’re trying to get student support,” Enwall said. “You can do pretty much anything with student support.”

Caley DeVries, president of SSF, has worked toward starting a co-op at Western for the past two years. DeVries said that a co-op would not only provide students with locally sourced food, but it could also be used as a place to teach students about cooking and educate them about food in other cultures. She said that partnerships with the AS Ethnic Student Center and other campus organizations would be particularly important.

“A lot of students do not know how to cook and do not have cooking skills. We think that’s a shame. We have potlucks pretty much every weekend, and we all know how to cook. It’s in our blood,” DeVries said. In the future, she envisions an on-campus kitchen space where groups could come and host cooking classes and teach others about food.

“For example, if the ESC wanted to put on a cooking class about traditional Mexican foods, there would be a place to go. Students could participate and learn about their traditions and basically their heritage,” she said. “That is so lacking in this campus community, and I think it’s an important thing to promote.”

There are still many hoops to jump through before a co-op becomes a reality at Western, however.
Enwall said that finding a space for the co-op is the main issue. Sodexo has an exclusive contract with the university, which gives the company total control over all the kitchens, dining halls and cafés on campus.

“If we were to do a café, we would have to use their kitchens, their shipping and receiving. Anything you need to run a co-op would have to be through Sodexo,” she said.

Seth Vidaña, campus sustainability coordinator, said that organizing a fully autonomous student-run co-op that is in agreement with other university stakeholders, such as Sodexo, has always been a major obstacle. He said that there may someday be a possibility of SSF working out a deal with Sodexo, but it would take much more work and planning.

“There is a potential synergy between the student drive to have a student-centered local and organic food-focused space and the management and the procurement capabilities of dining services,” Vidaña said. “But that’s got to be worked out.”

The only area on campus that Sodexo doesn’t have complete control over is Vendors Row outside the VU. Enwall said that one of the club’s goals for spring quarter is to use that location to hold a fundraiser for the co-op.

Enwall has allies on her side. She and other members of SSF are working with Co-Fed, a nonprofit from Berkeley, Calif. whose sole purpose is to work with universities across the nation to set up their own co-ops. Enwall plans on attending the organization’s summer training program, where she will learn to manage, organize and plan a successful co-op.

“I really feel like my education is really being enriched,” Enwall said. “We’re learning as we go, and it’s a lot of work, but it’s really fun too.”

For more information about getting involved with the effort to create a student-run food co-op, email wwufoodcoop@gmail.com, or visit the group’s Facebook page by searching “Western Student Food Co-op.”