Brown Bag Co-op’s Return to OSCA Lottery Offers Unique Dining Option for Students

The name Brown Bag Co-op evokes the image of a mom-and-pop grocery store, and that is effectively what the co-op, which existed prior to the pandemic, was. Brown Bag, which operates under a principle similar to Costco’s, where purchasing foodstuffs in bulk is cheaper than purchasing individually, is set to reopen next semester.

Though operating within the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association, Brown Bag provides a unique alternative to traditional co-ops, because the workload expectation is one hour rather than five like at other OSCA dining options. It’s also a less expensive alternative to the college dining plan, designed particularly for students living off-campus or in village housing.

College second-year Elijah Freiman, a Food Coordinator with OSCA, spends his weeks communicating with vendors and farmers while acting as the point person for individual co-op food buyers who must order food weekly for each co-op. Freiman is also the OSCA president-elect for the 2023–24 academic year and has been a part of the team working on gauging and creating enthusiasm for Brown Bag.

“While it’s not a co-op in the sense that you’re not spending your meals with 80 of your best friends, there will still be a sense of community where, if a friend from another house is going to pick up their groceries and has a car, there will be an email list to communicate mobility barriers, for example,” Freiman said. “I think that, by joining a shared venture like this, there’s some buy-in, even if it’s less intense than the traditional co-ops. My hope and my belief is that there will still be some sense of community and shared obligation.”

With Freiman’s work primarily on the advertising side, College fourth-year and OSCA treasurer Hannah Humphrey has worked with the finer logistics, both financial and administrative. Humphrey was a Food Coordinator who worked with Brown Bag food buyers prior to the pandemic, making them a notable member of one of the last cohorts of people on campus to have experienced Brown Bag fully operational.

“[Brown Bag] probably had 100 people in it at one point,” Humphrey said. “We have to demonstrate [to the college] that we have a certain amount of interest in the co-ops each year … When we first brought back the coops in 2021 after the pandemic, I think there just wasn’t enough generated interest [in Brown Bag] and then last year when we did the lottery, a lot of people didn’t know whether or not they had off-campus housing or village housing, and those are the people for whom it’s advantageous to partake in Brown Bag [because] they have a kitchen that they can use at home so it’s more desirable for them to want to get groceries.”

Prior to this OSCA lottery, which closed March 1, OSCA. staff decided to push harder for reopening the co-op. Per the rent contract, OSCA was able to decide which pre-pandemic co-ops it would work to bring back for the following semester; it was just a matter of determining. Brown Bag’s budget alongside those of the other co-ops, a responsibility carried out primarily by Humphrey.

Brown Bag operated out of Old Barrows and Fairchild House, which was previously a vegan co-op before becoming Clarity, an AVI Foodsystems dining hall.  Dry goods were accessible in the former and refrigerated ones in the latter. OSCA’s lease with the College guarantees a refrigerated space as part of Brown Bag, so with the Fairchild basement now as an AVI dining hall, it’s up to OSCA to determine where this new refrigerator will be.

“If we open in [Old Barrows], we can rely on trying to get it that way, or we may try to use one of our existing fridge spaces,” Humphrey said. “In particular, Pyle [Inn], since [it] used to be a much larger co-op, if interest stays about the same, we might try to combine the two spaces because [Pyle] has fridges they don’t necessarily use right now and space that they have available. We have one of two pathways depending on the amount of expressed interest.”

By and large, the community within and outside of OSCA was thrilled to see “BBC” as an option on the 2023–24 lottery as an option. Most of Freiman’s advertising operated by word of mouth, where he worked tirelessly knocking on the door of each village house with another OSCA member.

“The main sentiment is that there should just be more options,” Freiman said. “There’s something to be said for autonomy in choosing what you eat and there’s something tyrannical about forcing people to be in a dining hall. OSCA is awesome, but it doesn’t work food-wise for everything, so I think Brown Bag is exciting as a true alternative.”

On one occasion, Freiman knocked on the door of someone who had just come out of the shower and was naturally surprised at first. After talking, they informed Frieman and his fellow door-knocker that they would fill out the lottery form immediately.

“There were some moments where it was like, ‘Why are you knocking on my door?’ because there’s not a lot of doorknocking in our sleepy town of 8,000,” Freiman said. “I would initially get some people feeling a bit uncomfortable. But then, a lot of the time, there was a complete 180 where they were like, ‘Oh! Brown Bag!’ We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback — People have already told me things they want to cook. People can never help themselves from sharing recipes.”

Although the OSCA housing and dining lottery is now closed, the waitlist for next year opens March 4, meaning there is still a possibility to join Brown Bag Coop.