Most students can agree that Swarthmore isn’t the most culinarily diverse or accomplished school. It isn’t uncommon to hear students complaining in Sharples about the quality or variety of the food. Due to our distance from the metropolitan area, we are often limited to Sharples, Essie Mae’s, and the restaurants in the Ville (Renato’s, Dunkin’ Doughnuts, Hobbs, Happy Wok, Aria, etc). The gastrological limitations at Swarthmore do not bother all students, but many of those that are affected seek alternatives.
Each dorm on campus has a certain reputation; Willets is the party dorm, Mary Lyon is the nerdy dorm, and Parrish has creepy basements. The Barn is no different, known for housing the more ecologically-aware Swatties, as a good deal of its residents are member of the Swarthmore College Co-op (a collective of students, not the local grocery store). Most students on the meal plan seem to believe that cooking for themselves would be much too time-consuming, which, while possible, is not how many of the Barn’s residents look at it, who choose to join the Co-op and share in the responsibility of cooking.
The Co-op consists of a group of students who work together to cook and prepare food, while being conscious of their environmental impact and keeping each others’ dietary restrictions in mind. Members share shifts of cooking, cleaning, picking up groceries, and organizing their social events. Sharing the workload allows the members to enjoy a diverse menu without having to commit several hours each day towards making a good meal.
Not all of The Barn’s residents participate in the Co-op, nor do all Co-op members live in The Barn, but there is definitely a large overlap. Members are still in the process of envisioning the co-op, according to member Natalia Choi ’15, so the overriding element is flexibility. Everyone discusses how they want to run it and what they want to cook, as not everyone is vegan (although many believe the Co-op composed entirely of vegans, it’s not).
For the Co-op, the choices they make about what they eat are, to an extent, political. Members try to buy food from suppliers that have good business practices, such as Hillside Farms in Media, a Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA. CSAs is a locally based distribution model for food, which support CSAs ensures transparency and that the money goes to support the local community.
Students choose to live in The Barn and join the Co-op for different reasons. Maria Elena Covarrubias ’15 was drawn in by the Barn’s independence and atmosphere. Once there, Covarrubias visited the Co-op a lot and loved the idea of intentional living and having a own space to cook.
“My goal is that we will find ways to share our labor equitably and will have good food cooked for each other every night,” said Covarrubias.
Though Ben Wolcott ‘14 is also a member of the Co-op and a resident of the Barn, he doesn’t let his passion for cooking stop there: he has also worked at the Grill at Sharples for three semesters. Wolcott said that he has always had tremendous respect for Swarthmore’s workers, and that he chose to cook at Sharples because he wanted to get a better sense of what their work there was like. Where at the Co-op, Wolcott cooks for an hour or so, he described cooking at Sharples as a hectic rush in which he’s cooking several things for several people under a strict time limit.
Wolcott most values his work at Sharples for the relationships he’s built with his coworkers. He regularly plays pool with Fred Carpenter, his Learning for Life partner, for instance. Though he doesn’t regularly eat at Sharples, Wolcott believes the dining hall is an important part of the community. A Sociology and Economics Major, Wolcott thinks that food, something most people take for granted, is inherently political, especially in regards to the labor involved in its production. With a rising number of student workers in Sharples, in fact, Wolcott is worried that the amount of full-time jobs Swarthmore can offer to members of the surrounding communities will decrease.
Perhaps the most novel method of acquiring food around Swarthmore is dumpster diving. It’s a divisive practice, one which students tend either to love or hate. One student that dumpster dives, who chose to remain anonymous, said that for them it’s a win-win-win situation — free food, less waste in landfills, and more money to buy food from local, sustainable sources.
A large part of the reason people dumpster dive is ecological. Doriana Thornton ’16, a resident of Mary Lyon, says it’s just another way for her to live ecologically and lessen impact, though she knows that her own actions aren’t enough and large structural change is necessary. The anonymous student agreed with Thornton’s statement and said that “it [dumpster diving] is one tiny way of working within the industrial food system to reduce waste (and nourish yourself without pumping money into the system itself) — kind of the edible equivalent of buying energy-efficient lightbulbs (only it’s free!)” Both students believe that the world as a whole produces enough food to feed everyone but distributing it to feed everyone is a matter of logistics and living conscientiously.
When it comes to methodology, dumpster diving is fairly straight forward. All it requires is knowing which dumpsters store food and which don’t have security. Simplicity, in fact, seems to be part of the allure for dumpster divers.
Though Swarthmore doesn’t have as many options as other colleges due to its location, it is possible to find other outlets for food here. The alternatives range from the everyday (being off the meal plan and cooking and eating with the Co-op or cooking for oneself) to the radically different (dumpster diving). And of course, more options doesn’t always mean more work. The Co-op is an open group which allows anyone to join as long as they’re willing to take a shift, allowing everyone to save time by spreading the work. All over Swarthmore, students are getting more done by working together to make us, and each other, eat.
Note: A source requested that I direct anyone who is interested in dumpster diving to them, so if anyone has any interest you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.