Eating off the Meal Plan: a Series on Where Else to Eat: Co-Op House

Tucked away on Union Street lies the McCarthy Co-Op, a theme house centered around fostering a community by cooking and sharing local, sustainable and organic foods together. This week, I talked with senior and Co-Op Residence Life Manager (RLM) Hannah Jeruc. She shared the ins and outs of the Co-Op meal plan, currently used by 15 students.

With 11 people occupying the house, the meal plan consists of a collective food budget of about the same amount as a regular meal plan with Bon Appétit. This budget is placed in Co-Op’s private bank account, readily available to ration for groceries. The meal plan is also flexible, giving students an allowance of meal swipes and culinary cash, which—due to the typically hectic Lawrence schedule—allows them to pick up food quickly. Co-Op is an entirely vegetarian house, with consistent vegan and gluten-free options.

Steve Keune, an Outagamie County area farmer, provides Co-Op and other houses with locally grown, organic produce delivered straight to their doors. Some common foods that Keune delivers are root vegetables, dried fruit, nuts and, occasionally, Kombucha tea. Although most of Co-Op’s food comes from Keune, due to the seasonality of the produce, they must occasionally buy staple foods from larger chain stores such as Woodman’s. When they grocery shop at Woodman’s they prioritize supporting local, organic and sustainable foods—a difficult feat at a chain supermarket, yet accomplished with distinct fervor. Jeruc detailed that lemons and limes are the most sought after because they are essential for cooking large group meals.

She discussed how living in a theme house and cooking her own food expanded her food consciousness. She said that the skills she has learnt from living on a food collective are invaluable. Cooking for oneself or a large group, budgeting for weekly groceries, buying the healthiest foods for the cheapest amount, and rationing food so as not to waste anything are some of the abilities taught within the confines of theme housing. Since Lawrence students are required to live on campus all four years, these skills are hard to come by.

Jeruc described that those who are forced to live on a mass meal plan “don’t learn those skills and then when they live independently after they graduate, they don’t know how to cook or how to budget to buy groceries.”

When prompted, Jeruc discussed the new perspective that only living in group housing or living off campus can bring. She stated, “I’ve become more aware of how much we waste. In Co-Op, we really try to eat everything and what we can’t eat, we compost.” She went on to say that she only attained new perspectives about waste and food culture by living in Co-Op for three years.

Bon Appétit provides many options for dietary restrictions, because Lawrence students are required to live on campus all four years. Most campuses do not have these same options, providing little to no assistance for vegan, vegetarian or gluten-free diets. However, most universities allow their students to live off campus, so students learn valuable skills such as cooking and budgeting.

Co-Op is only one example of the food perspectives that Lawrence’s group houses can teach.