The United Nations has declaired 2012 the International Year of the
Coop. Novelist, essayist and educator Deborah Luskin has been a member
of one food coop or another for the past thirty-seven years.
I joined my first coop when I drew a hopeless number in the housing
lottery the spring semester of my freshman year at college, dashing my
hopes to live with my friends and eat normal food. By the time my number
was called, a space in the Natural Foods Coop was the only option left.
The Housing and Dining Coops at Oberlin College were already
twenty-five years old when I showed up at Harkness in the fall of 1975.
I’d grown up with three brothers, so I was naturally skeptical about
large-scale cooperation, but both the dorm and dining hall had
well-established protocols, and I fit right in. Sixty of us lived in the
dorm; theoretically, we had cleaning jobs, though I have no memory of
them. It was the kitchen that ran like a charm, turning out three meals a
day for 110 diners seven days a week.
In 1975, Natural Foods
were hippy, not hip, and finding items we now consider staples was no
easy task. In our coop kitchen, we baked all our own bread using
whole-wheat flour we milled on-site, and the only way to have tofu was
to make it ourselves. We grew all our own sprouts.
In no time at
all, I fell in love with both the cooperative format and with natural
foods, and I chose to dine at Harkness the remaining semesters I was on
campus. After graduation, I moved to New York City and joined a
pre-order coop in the East Village, until I moved uptown, where there
were no co-ops in sight.
In 1984, I came to Vermont for the
summer – and never left. Part of the allure of Vermont was how it felt
like college – but for grown-ups. The small population made it easy to
meet people in the town where I settled, and there was so much theater,
art and music nearby, the whole county felt like a campus. Even the
politics were passionate, as expressed in lively letters to the then
independent newspaper. And in Brattleboro, there was a cooperative
I joined the Brattleboro Food Coop in 1985, and I’ve
been a working member ever since. When I joined, members were required
to work, so my husband and I would sign up for Saturday Night Clean-up
and call it a date. In the current store, working is optional, but worth
a significant discount, so I’ve always done something, from office
filing to slicing cheese. Our kids helped with member work as they
became competent. All three are now members, and for Christmas last
year, they gave me five-months’ worth of work credits – a wonderful
Coops are owned and governed by their members. One member
has one vote – the same as Town Meeting. Given Vermont’s tradition of
direct democracy combined with its leadership promoting organically
grown, locally sourced food, it’s no wonder that the state is home to no
less than eight food cooperatives – and that’s more per capita than any
other state by far.