The Maryland Food Co-op: For the People

By Timmy Chong
Sports Section Editor

For over four decades, the student-run and self-sufficient Maryland Food Co-op has been serving the University of Maryland in the basement underneath the main dining plaza of the Stamp Student Union.

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Image from proteenqueen.com

The organization takes pride in being a worker-owned democratic collective. Each full-time staff member has an equal say in making business decisions such as adding food items, hiring new workers, and methodizing how to further decrease waste.

While the process may not be efficient, it is thorough, inclusive, and appealing to many of the employees.

“Working in a collective is definitely much better for me than any job with a more typical hierarchical structure,” said junior English major Lee Harkness. “Having no boss requires you to be more invested in what you’re doing and pushes you to think how you can make your workplace better in the long term.”

The Co-op identifies itself as a not-for-profit business. Although it is not registered as a 501(c) nonprofit organization, its purpose of existence is not to make money. Many of its workers are volunteers who only receive compensation in the form of store credit, which is how Harkness and senior economics major Pete Myers started working there.

“We operate on a thin profit margin and when we do make a profit that money goes right back into the business,” Myers said. “We pass along a lot of the surplus to the consumer by keeping the prices as low as possible.”

One of the Co-op’s defining aspects is its devotion to minimizing its environmental impact. It tracks unsold food on a waste log, recycles or composts the bulk of its trash, and utilizes sustainable non-food items like biodegradable plastic cutlery.

Additionally, in line with the founder’s philosophy, it aims to serve healthy meals. The coffee and tea are organic and fairly traded. Near the order counter, a chalkboard labeled “Today’s Ingredients” shows customers which produce items of the day are organic and obtained from local farmers or businesses.

The predominantly vegetarian menu consists of items like the Green Monster and Tofurkey Club sandwiches, and the Falafel and Mediterranean salads, along with the option to custom-order them.

But what makes the Co-op most unique is how it has built a culture rooted in equality, community, and liberal sentiments.

The Co-op and its workers do not shy away from publicly expressing political values. Socialist posters throughout the store read “Capitalism is a pyramid scheme,” “Foreclose on the 1%,” and “Say no to the corporate deathburger.” Fliers on the walls boldly support worker’s unions, gender equality, and world peace.

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A Maryland Food Co-op flier. Photo by Rebecca Torchia

“The whole social justice aspect of non-profit is certainly something that we embody as a co-op,” Myers said. “We’re all very politically active and are always down to help out a worthy cause.”

Harkness agreed that the “leftist” and even “radical” atmosphere draws people in.

While the culture of the store starts with its workers, who are as down-to-earth as the meals they make, it is amplified by the loyal patrons who hang out in-between classes and study on one of the old couches in the lounge area.

For many customers it is more than a sandwich shop, it is a space for the community, and especially for creativity. The Co-op hosts open mic events with Terpoets every other Friday night for musicians, comedians and poets to perform their original work.

“For me, the Co-op serves as the ultimate coffeehouse environment,” said junior accounting major Tayo Omisore, who is also the treasurer of Terpoets. “The energy during our open mics is always so welcoming and positive and really allows me to explore my artistic limits, without fear of judgment.”

“That’s really the cornerstone of the Co-op: freedom from judgment,” said Omisore.

The Co-op may be called unconventional, or even hipster, but more than both of those it is human. The hand-painted sign on the front door says “Food for people, not for profit,” and that’s exactly what the Co-op is— an organization for the people, and for all people.

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