Old Barrows, Brown Bag Co-ops to Remain Closed

Due to low enrollment numbers, Old Barrows housing co-op and Brown Bag dining co-op will remain under the College’s control next academic year — the third year in a row that neither co-op will be in operation through the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association. The announcement of these prolonged closures comes as the nonprofit navigates its first year under the new rent contract finalized with the College in December 2020 and after all co-ops were shut down and operated by the College for the duration of the 2020–2021 academic year.

All co-op housing and dining spaces were operated by the College between March 2020 and October 2021, which prompted concerns among OSCAns that the College would not allow the nonprofit to continue its normal operations. However, OSCA reopened under a newly- negotiated rent contract at the start of last fall. Notably, Fairchild housing and dining co-ops both permanently closed under the new contract, and their facilities were transferred back to the College. Residential Education now controls Fairchild House, while Clarity operates out of the building’s industrial kitchen. Kosher Halal Co-op similarly closed its doors in spring 2021 and is now home to Heritage.

The new rent contract provides that OSCA may operate co-op spaces only if it meets an enrollment threshold — if not, the College has the prerogative to use OSCA facilities for ResEd and AVI Foodsystems. As a result of this change in the contract, Old Barrows and Brown Bag co-op have not been run by OSCA this academic year.

According to double-degree third-year Katie Galt, all-OSCA membership secretary, the continued closures of Old Barrows and Brown Bag co-op were due to the overall under-enrollment of OSCA rather than a lack of interest in the two specific co-ops.

“It’s unfortunate because there actually was enough interest in Old Barrows and Brown Bag co-op to have been able to open those co-ops, but we didn’t have enough total numbers,” Galt said. “We need to be able to fill [Harkness], Keep, Pyle, [Third World Co-op], [and Third World Social Justice Co-op] before we could open Old Barrows or BBC — or close one of those five. … The way our rent is calculated changed because of this new contract. Now we pay per student, instead of by building. If we can’t fill the building, we can’t afford it.”

Galt outlined how the new rent contract has posed a number of challenges for OSCA — in addition to the underlying difficulties emerging from the institution’s two-year closure due to COVID-19.

“Our rates are calculated based off Oberlin College’s prices, which removes the level of autonomy that we have over how we can determine our prices,” Galt said.

Galt also said that vague language in the new rent contract adds further financial strain on the institution and enables the College to profit off of students’ decisions to leave OSCA midway through the semester.

“The lease is a bit vague, or unhelpful, in terms of what to do when students go abroad,” Galt said. “Right now it kind of seems like OSCA is expected to just absorb the cost of a student going abroad. We can’t fill their housing spot [because] we can’t let people join OSCA midyear … which creates pretty big problems for us in terms of retention and keeping our membership numbers up because people can still leave OSCA … then the College makes double money on that person because we … buy a dining exemption for them to be in OSCA. When they leave OSCA, they also pay [Campus Dining Services].”

In addition to these logistical details, College first-year Abigail Nordan pointed out a continuing trend in the increase of OSCA’s cost. According to Nordan, while participating in co-ops was previously a means for low-income students to attend Oberlin, the price has risen to the extent that joining OSCA is now a burden on low- income students.

“Originally intended to make Oberlin more accessible to low-income students, OSCA membership used to cost approximately half as much as CDS membership,” Nordan wrote in an email to the Review. “Now, Oberlin’s administration reduces grant money awarded to prospective OSCAns dollar for dollar according to the price difference, making the financial incentive to join co-ops obsolete. In addition to this, the administration also lowers need-based financial aid to prospective OSCAns, as if there was still significant money to be saved by opting out of CDS.”

Nordan also highlighted that the dwindling institutional memory within OSCA, compounded by the financial challenges the new rent contract poses for low-income students, threaten the core of OSCA as an institution.

“OSCA suffers more than ever in the wake of COVID, as those who remember how OSCA operated before the pandemic shut-down have mostly graduated,” Nordan wrote. “By next year, we will be able to count those students on our fingers. Without institutional memory of how our kitchens are meant to be operated and cleaned, we risk failing inspections and getting shut down.”

The next opportunity for OSCA to renegotiate its rent contract with the College will take place in 2025.