Thursday, November 18, 2010


While going to the UM, I lived in the co-ops. With my limited budget, they were affordable in part because the residents were supposed to put in so many hours of work to make the place run. The organization had just a few paid employees. My life there was an eye opener in many respects. We discussed the ethics of many things. What was fair? Is it fair to eat beef when each  pound of beef took 5 lbs of grain to produce when there are starving people around the world? We tackled racism, homophobia, many issues. In general, there seemed to be a shared mission to try to make things fair. Initially, I agreed to be a treasurer. How hard could it be? Very difficult as it turned out preparing trial balances etc. I had no experience with accounting but I quickly learned. I eventually decided that I could be president of the house; certainly that should be less hassle.

In this organization, there were two types of houses. Big ones that contained commercial kitchens making it legal to prepare food for groups of people and small houses lacking these kitchens. Residents of the small houses were required to eat (and of course help prepare) their meals in the big houses. Overall, there were more people living in big houses than small houses and thus they had more representation. Was this fair? From my stint as an accountant, I noticed that the big houses charged an outrageous part of their fixed charges (maintenance, etc) over to the residents of the small houses justifying that since  the small residents spent part of their time there, they should be charged something. The upshot was that the small house residents paid significantly more in rent total. As president, I was to represent my small house at policy making meetings with the other co-op presidents. I had checked the rents at the other small houses. Yes they too were much higher. At the first meeting I attended, I entered a motion that our rents become more equal; a fairness rule so to speak. Another small house seconded my motion. There was some discussion. One big house president said that if I didn't like the situation, I should just move into a big house myself. Ah..that sounds fair doesn't it? Well the motion was defeated. We small houses didn't have the numbers to defend ourselves. I went back to my house and had a meeting. I wanted to have a rent strike to force this organization who claims to be so fair, actually be fair to its underrepresented minority. They could not evict all of us. Surprisingly, my motion passed. I sent a letter to the board  president saying our house was no longer going to pay rent until this situation is fixed. It got fixed.

Later I was contacted by one of the female permanent employees who wanted me to study pay equity between male and female employees. Market forces are not 'fair' as it turned out.

Eventually I had too many other responsibilities to attend all these meetings. I agreed to be the head chef for 2 meals and finish out my time obligations as a dinner clean-up supervisor.

Cooking for 70 people was an experience in itself.  We relied heavily on the cookbook Cooking for Fifty multiplying everything by 1.5. Another staple was Diet for a Small Planet in which we learned how to get our complete protein from non-animal sources.

All and all, my life in the co-ops made me grow up and learn in ways I could not have imagined. When in CA a few months back, my friend from the co-op had some pictures of us back in the day. We looked so impossibly young. We so much wanted to do the right things; not just for us but the planet, for the down trodden, etc. The idealism of youth! I learned Roberts Rules of Order, double entry accounting, compromise, what amino acids are in what foods, what is tofu and turbot, how to get co-operation from kids who came from privileged  backgrounds and unused to chores, how to maintain a 100 year old house (which burned to the ground about 5 years ago)etc. I feel badly that my children did not have a similar experience.

I also learned that principles and practices can be miles apart.


Teri Bernstein said...

Ahhh! The co-op days. Thank you for some reminders. Such lovely memories. I worked my way up from super underling chef to head cook at dinner over a few years of co-op chores. I learned so much about vegetarian cooking, and recycling, and buying veggies wholesale.
Saturday I am driving up to Davis, CA to visit my Younger Adult Daughter at the Coop Reunion Thanksgiving on Saturday. Tomorrow I will have to figure out how to bake a vegan pecan pie as a contribution...BTW I will be in MI during January...

Sue in Italia/In the Land Of Cancer said...

A MI visit in January?!! Please, please, carve out plenty of time for an A2 visit. We'd love to see you and you can revisit Ms. Maya.

Vegan pecan pie. Hmmm. Last night I was discussing possible Thanksgiving dishes with a friend. She's considering Sweet potato pecan pie but it probably contains eggs.
On line I found this: which I think could be adapted with the addition of pecans. The recipe was reported to be loved by 'omnis' too.
The source seems to be from a place that the Younger Adult would love to be at.

As for our co-op days, I went from President to Sunday main meal head chef. Promotion or demotion? I remember the commercial oven being the bane of my existence as it would go out without warning. I'd have to constantly run back and forth across the street to make sure it was on.
I was a lunch head chef too and I had the greatest assistant but I can't remember his name.

We had a chief granola maker (with certain people who would pick out the good stuff from the communal batch) chief bread maker (bread for a week wouldn't last through the night) and chief yogurt maker. Those were the days.


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