As we approach the end of the semester, I can’t help but look back on the academic year and reflect on my experiences living in Hoyt, one of Berkeley’s 20 student cooperatives (BSC). Student cooperatives (co-ops) are a great option for low-income students looking to live in an interactive environment and meet new people. Since I never experienced the freshman dorm life of late night conversations and shenanigans (I was stuck quarantining at home), co-ops served as an alternative that allowed me to make up for lost time with everlasting memories and friendships.

One of the most important goals of a cooperative is food security: making sure everyone has access to a meal is what keeps the cooperative system running as a whole. Heading in, I had no idea what to expect (my only source of knowledge was Reddit threads) so I was quite apprehensive. This article provides an introduction to what a co-op is and how it addresses the problem of food insecurity, something I wish was more accessible during my own search for information. To gain a different perspective, I interviewed one of our amazing kitchen managers, who runs the kitchen with her partner and orders food and supplies for the house. Before jumping into the content, I do want to make a disclaimer that my experience is mainly based on my time here at Hoyt, so details may vary from house to house.

How Do Student Cooperatives Work?

Remi Tateishi

As the name suggests, student cooperatives are maintained through cooperative living—they're mostly student-run and led. For individual houses and apartments, there are role-specific managers, who are voted in and compensated for their time. A student-run central board oversees the system as a whole and votes on rules and policies. Within each house, council meetings, which are run by the house president, allow members to vote on house policies and discuss any changes or concerns.

The Meaning of Cooperative Living

Remi Tateishi

In exchange for low rent and readily available food, students must contribute to the house! Requirements include five hours of workshifts per week and other tasks that vary by co-op; if these are not completed, you will be fined. This mainly applies to houses. For apartments, only 12 hours are owed over the entire semester, but food is not provided there. Workshift responsibilities include cleaning dishes, pots, bathrooms, and other aspects of housekeeping. Hours can also be completed by working at the BSC food supply center or office.

However, as our kitchen manager points out, “When you live in cooperative living, everyone has to chip in and help out to make it a livable space. This is tough, because no one is paying you to do it. You do it out of the kindness of your own heart and the fear of getting fined.” So, oftentimes, dishes and cups pile up, or there’s not a single sheet of toilet paper in the bathrooms. While it can be frustrating when the state of the house depends on students that might be too busy or lazy, it's all the more fulfilling when everyone does their part.

How Does Food Work in the Cooperatives?

Remi Tateishi

The biggest pro about a cooperative is that it addresses food insecurity, which is a problem for many low-income students. Fresh vegetables, fruits, bread, cereal, instant and canned foods—among others—are included in rent and always available for students to use for their own meals. Dinners, which include a portion of carbs, protein, and veggies, are provided by fantastic student-cooks six days a week (every day except Saturday) as part of their workshift. This gives students one less meal to worry about, and leftovers are fair game for meals the next few days.

Luckily, Hoyt is blessed with some seriously talented and hard-working cooks. The dinner seen above was prepared by two Hoytians, Ruby and Olivia! Our kitchen manager recalls her favorite Hoyt dinner moment: “I remember a member made lasagna once and it was the best thing ever—it was so good. We usually don’t get much meat in the house, because meat is expensive, and only 60% of the house eats meat. But she made so much lasagna, and this lasagna had meat in it, it had cheese, and it was so heartwarming. There were like six different lasagnas, and I was like, ‘This is cookshift!'"

Where Does the Food Come From?

Remi Tateishi

The responsibility of ensuring food security falls upon our lovely and hardworking kitchen managers who ensure "people are getting fed and there are enough essentials to go around.” They order fresh produce directly from an external vendor and other food items, supplies, and house essentials from the BSC food supply center. The food is ordered in bulk, making it cheaper and easier to share with the house or other co-ops.

“The money for rent that you pay all goes to cooperative living: a big amount of that money is used to buy food that will benefit the most people.” Each house is allocated a budget, most of which goes towards food. Kitchen managers also make sure the house is adhering to this, organizing everything using a “really, really big Google sheet.” Students can make personal food requests through forms, as well as make use of the spaces available for storage of personal food and groceries.

Some Co-Op Cons

Remi Tateishi

Of course, there will be cons: “I will say that this does take some agency away from members themselves. While there is [...] a pro of having all the money in one space so that we can buy the most amount that will feed the most people, it is up to the kitchen managers to have the right kind of judgment, to listen to the house and have good communication, so that the most people are satisfied most of the time.” As our kitchen manager points out, it’s hard to buy food, especially in bulk, to satisfy a house of 60 people. To save money, we also tend to buy produce that is in season or cheapest at the time of purchase. “If you lived on your own, you would have less money to spend, but you would be able to spend it on things that you want.” We sacrifice some of our agency when it comes to food choices in exchange for food security.

Another unfortunate aspect of the co-ops is the difficulty of ordering food. The program that the system runs on is outdated and hard to use, so there would often be weeks where things we ordered would not come in. Furthermore, kitchen managers have to order things a week in advance, playing a guessing game of what the house will want a week later. There will always be food in the house, just not always the food you want.

I hope this article has provided more insight into how student cooperatives operate and the pros and cons that come with them. Each co-op is infused with its own character and personality, so if you’re planning on living in one, make sure to check them out in person before making a final decision. One thing that our kitchen manager and I both really like about co-ops is the people: “I think that there are some people here that make it so enjoyable; we have conversations and talk about things that bond us all together. It’s kind of nice to come downstairs to the kitchen and know there’s always someone there.” You’re sure to make lifelong friends and memories, and it’s definitely a worthwhile experience. So give cooperative living a try!