Since I’ve been at Xavier, I’ve had two experiments with meal sharing, both of which have been helpful and positive. Food cooperatives are a terrific way to accomplish multiple goals: saving time on food preparation, saving money in food purchasing, gaining support and reinforcement for one’s own ideological commitments (e.g., organic ingredients; low-fat, healthy meal preparation, vegetarian or vegan commitments, using only locally grown produce, etc.), and, depending upon how it’s done, building community. There isn’t a right or wrong way to put together a dinner co-op. The most important thing I’ve found is that keeping lines of communication open and doing regular assessment of the program that a group establishes is important to success, both short and long term. I thought I’d write up some of my experiences, in case it might inspire other folks on campus to give this idea some new variation.
My first experience of a dinner co-op was actually in graduate school, where eight of us came together for meals, Monday through Thursday. As we set up a framework, we had a meeting in which each of us brought five recipes that we proposed to the group, out of which the group selected two. Then we each selected a day of the week, Monday through Thursday. We cooked our meal for eight, every other week, rotating between the two recipes. In other words, every second Wednesday of the month I made, say, a spinach casserole, sweet potatoes and salad. Every fourth Wednesday I made chicken cacciatore. I did the dishes on the first and third Wednesdays of the month. And I ate incredibly well the other days of the month without having to do anything more than show up. My food bills shrank, and we had wonderful conversations four nights a week.
Unfortunately, we’re all a lot busier than we were in graduate school. Even though, for most of us, it’s impractical to actually eat together in the evenings, we’ve found several ways to pool food preparation efforts to save time and money. This past semester, three families in the Department of Theology pooled our efforts such that we were preparing one meal a week for three families, bringing the meals onto campus to store in the refrigerator and then each taking them home for the week. On Mondays, John Sniegocki might bring in sweet potato soup with salad and cornbread, which we’d all take home; on Tuesdays, I might bring in spanikopita; on Wednesdays Jennifer Beste might bring in a tortilla casserole or stir-fry. I noticed immediately the same effect as in graduate school: Knowing that the meals were in place meant there were no quick stops for carry out, and my food bills went down dramatically. But last semester’s food co-op was also positive in that we all have a commitment to sustainability, so we purchased local, organic ingredients wherever possible and prepared vegan recipes (with an occasional nod to cheese, depending upon the recipe). Through the group I felt support for my values and an implicit sense of solidarity and community, even though we never sat down to eat together.
Another—and for some even more attractive—way of dinner sharing is one that worked very well for an entire school year many years back, when Lisa Close-Jacob and I hired a former student of mine who not only watched our children after school two afternoons a week but also came over an hour early and prepared our evening meal. We did all of the food purchasing, set out ingredients and the recipes (all of which the two families had agreed upon in advance), and the former student, Carly, would get to work. For an extra hour’s wages twice a week, the two families had a warm meal ready at the end of the workday. Splitting the cost of the dinners’ ingredients paid for the labor and then some. I remember that year as being, logistically, one of the easiest in my Xavier career, and both families remember Carly with real gratitude.
Another possible model includes pre-cooking meals on Saturdays and bringing them to campus frozen on Mondays for distribution. Experimenting to find a structure that works and that reduces individual time, expense, energy, and carbon impact can be both fun and have real economic benefits.
Department of Theology