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Real Food Co-op at Princeton

Joining a food cooperative has been one of my wisest decisions at Princeton. Since I’m only  a sophomore, people react to my co-op membership with perplexed expressions. Why would I join a co-op while the University still requires me to purchase a meal plan? Here’s the answer: it has given me a sense of belonging that no dining hall could ever provide.

Being a member of Real Food Co-op, one of four food cooperatives on campus, means that I cook dinner once a week for all twenty-five members, a shift that lasts approximately three hours. In exchange, I get home-cooked meals every evening, accompanied by lively conversation with wonderful people who share my love of cooking. Pretty ideal.

I first heard about Princeton’s co-ops during my freshman OA trip from one of my leaders, a co-op member. It didn’t take long before I was convinced that I wanted to join one as well.

But I was in for a surprise. I quickly learned that co-ops, though far less competitive in nature, are in fact harder to get into than Princeton’s eating clubs.

Princeton’s four co-ops boast a total membership of about 140 students, which means that members make up only five percent of the upperclassmen population. For comparison,seventy percent of Princeton upperclassmen are in an eating club.

One might think that this is because Princeton students simply don’t want to join co-ops. After all, they can be demanding: not only do members have to cook their own food, but they also have to go grocery shopping and clean their own dishes! But it seems that many students are (shockingly) not deterred by the thought of conducting themselves as most functioning adults in our society do.

I recently discovered that 2-Dickinson, the only co-op located in its own house (all others are based in dorm kitchens) has more than 200 students on its waitlist. If the number itself isn’t shocking enough, consider this: students interested in joining a single co-op outnumber the students already in all four, combined.

One’s ability to get into a co-op depends, in part, on how early one joined a waitlist, and whether or not they have upperclassman friends who are already members. I have spoken to students who placed their name on 2D’s waitlist during the first days of freshman year, or who have strategically cultivated friendships with current members, hoping they would help them gain membership.

This hasn’t stopped the University’s administration from presenting the co-op option as an equally viable alternative to the ubiquitous eating clubs. Get a clue: it isn’t. If I want to shell out a few thousand dollars for a membership in one of the sign-in clubs, all I have to do is put my name on a list in the spring of my sophomore year. But if I want to pay less than a few hundred dollars a year for the opportunity to cook and clean up after myself, well, I better get in line.

I am not the first to point out this frustrating disparity between the two eating options. Last year, a petition circulated by email, calling on students to support the formation of another co-op. Maybe, just maybe, the administration will hear this cry and establish another co-op sometime before the 2026 campus plan comes into fruition. But we don’t need one more co-op: we need five more co-ops. And we needed them yesterday.

When I ask my fellow Real-Food members what motivated them to join, many answer “money.” Due to generous support from the Mathey College office, Real Food membership only costs $170 a semester, averaging less than $2 per meal. And lest you think that we end up eating beans and rice every day, I can assure that our meals are delicious and varied (if you’re curious, you can always come for a guest meal).

But the reasons for joining go far beyond finances — Real Food has become a source of joy and comfort in my daily routine. Every evening at 6:30 p.m., when I descend into the basement of Edwards Hall, I am greeted by friends who are eager to hear about my day and offer comfort and advice. If this sounds familiar, that’s because this is what a family feels like.

Food is important. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, food is the foundation. It’s no wonder, then, that food is a topic of so many discussions on this campus. But food should never be a source of so much stress, planning, and scheming.

The co-ops were conceived as a more inclusive way of eating together. They require no more money than the cost of groceries, and no traits other than a desire to cook. Given the University’s commitment to inclusivity, it is both surprising and saddening that it isn’t doing more to support this form of community building. If the University truly practiced what it preaches about inclusivity, it would actively support the co-ops as an alternative for those alienated by the eating club system.

This task wouldn’t be difficult to accomplish. The University owns seven additional houses on Dickinson Street, University Place, and Edwards Place, all currently used as graduate housing. But since Princeton is dedicated to its undergraduate student body, as it so proudly announces at every available opportunity, I hope it will consider repurposing some of these houses as co-ops. Finding the students to fill these spaces with new flavors and friendships — that’s the easy part. I am certain that this offer would be met with enthusiasm from those who’ve placed their names on co-op waitlists.

Tonight, I will be having my usual meal in Real Food. But, scattered across campus, there will be students eating in dining halls, eating clubs, or alone — simply because there wasn’t enough room for them where they would truly belong.

Iris Samuels is a sophomore from Zichron Yakov, Israel. She can be reached at [email protected].

See also: Home Cooking in Princeton Alumni Weekly, photo source + article

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