OSCA: The Good, the Bad and the Gluten-Free

Sean Para

This is my first semester eating in a co-op. I was quite miserable last year on a CDS meal plan and was overjoyed last spring when I got into my first choice co-op, Old Barrows. Now, twice a day, I saunter all the way across campus to enjoy a meal made by a peer instead of the detestable and questionable food I was forced to endure at that timeless bastion of mediocrity and flavorlessness, Stevenson Hall. OSCA is by and large a better system than Campus Dining Services. Simply put, it provides better food for a large part of the campus at a lower price. The time I invest each week, three hours cooking and an hour cleaning, is well worth it. However, now that I have been eating in Old Barrows for a month, I have noticed some flaws in the OSCA system, flaws that are not addressed and are shabbily explained when I bring them up, despite the importance of consensus in the OSCA manifesto.

The extensive bureaucracy and attachment to procedure is, in my analysis, the main institutional flaw in OSCA. Interim, it seems, is interminable. This is now the fourth week I have eat- en at Old Barrows and we are still electing positions. However, the real problem with interim is the lack of a regular schedule of cooking and crews (cleaning the co-op, for those of you not familiar with OSCA). Meals get canceled all the time due to this lack of regularity, a pretty big problem in an institution designed to feed people. Even having discussions/elections almost every meal, we have yet to fill some major positions or discuss food policy.

There must be some way to streamline this process and get the co-op fully functional more quickly. The election process itself is clunky, as first we discuss the position, then nominate candidates, have them make speeches, leave the room and then vote on them, even if there are exactly as many candidates as there are positions. Often, by the time a candidate is being voted on, half the people who came to the meal have already left. I have voiced my concerns on these issues, and in response been told that this is the best way to have everyone’s voice heard. Is it? What is the merit of a process that ostensibly has everyone’s voice heard but in fact prevents co-ops from effectively fulfilling their main function? The current membership of Old Barrows did not choose to have this administrative system — it was passed down over time.

The predominance of vegetarian food is another concern I have with OSCA. I was told Old Barrows is meat-friendly and did sometimes serve meat, but I have yet to see any in the co-op. From what I have seen, 50–60 percent of the co-op is vegan or vegetarian, yet so are 100 percent of its meals. I have voiced my concerns about this as well, and in response I have been told it is the “lowest common denominator” to have vegetarian and vegan food. Yet, is this not an example of a significant part of the co-op simply not having its dining preferences attended to? Is this not ultimately a tyranny of the majority? I have talked to a lot of people who want meat to be served, and yet none has been. Obviously, OSCA’s tight budget precludes hav- ing meat all the time, but it would be more representa- tive of the preferences of the co-op membership to have meat sometimes, a fact that food buyers and much of the OSCA community choose to overlook.

I love OSCA. I am very happy to be a member of it. It is a far superior way to eat on campus than through Campus Dining Services. But this does not mean it is without flaw. An organization theoretically built around consensus should be more aware of the weight that history, convention and custom place on it. The way discussions work, the way meals are served and the entire struc- ture of OSCA have evolved through generations. While consensus is espoused as the fount of all decisions in OSCA, no one wants to point out how much of the way things work is predetermined before new members join each year. This is not a bad thing, but it must not be overlooked. The bureaucracy of the organization should be streamlined to create a more efficient system. Most importantly, however, the limits of consensus on decision-making, the weight of precedent and the marginalization of the membership on issues of food policy and administrative structure must be brought to light. These flaws do not invalidate the organization by any means; it is simply that OSCA as a whole and its members as individuals should critically appraise its multitudinous facets rather than accepting them outright.