“What time do you guys typically come in to start preparing the dishes?” I asked.
“Whenever we get here,” senior economics major David Violette said.
In most cases, someone would roll their eyes at such a sheepish response or even be in a state of total confusion. I can honestly say I didn’t expect anything less, all things considered.
At the Maryland Food Collective, carrots are meticulously chopped, falafels are rolled and fried, vegan shepherd’s pies are in their beginning stages and the strong stench of curry smogs the air while the onion’s pungent odor fills the eyes with tears all at the ripe hour of 8:30 a.m.
Ahh, how I love the sweet smell of tempeh in the morning.
Expecting to be engulfed by a group resembling those in Workaholics or Cheech and Chong, I walked into the Co-op, as the Food Collective is affectionately known, on a quiet Wednesday morning.
The Co-Op has been at this university since the mid-1970s when it was part of a movement for healthy, natural food on campus, appealing then and now to College Park’s vegetarians, vegans, hippies and hippie wannabes.
I took in its simplistic appearance, which resembles a typical basement with its concrete floors, chilled air and collection of antiqued, faded furniture that have seen better days.
My glazed over eyes, still heavy with sleep, fell to the offered breakfast selections, including the multiple fair trade coffee dispensers, array of bagels and impressive selection of granola.
Greeted by friendly, smiling faces, I was handed a tattered, red baseball cap and was kindly asked to pull my hair back before entering the realm of creative cuisine that was the kitchen where I found myself matching my man-bunned, chapeau-ed counterparts.
Calming tribal music began to play, the sound of frying oil filled my ears and the smell of sizzling falafel engulfed the kitchen. Cutting blocks were covered with freshly-chopped peppers, tomatoes, carrots and onions. Workers took warm pans of tempeh out of the oven to cool.
Upon looking around the kitchen, I couldn’t help but notice the many posters, some listing the ingredients of the different dishes or describing the proper way to wash your hands, others had messages like “Food Loves You” or promised $7 in food credit for every volunteer hour.
After 15 minutes or so, I glanced at the clock hanging on the wall, only to realize that surrounding it were scheduled chores (wash dishes, prepare tempeh, etc.). With every task comes a break and after noticing the infamous marijuana leaf signifying, ahem, “recreation” between the six and seven, I quickly developed a vague idea of the kind of environment I had entered.
Nevertheless, I soon found myself partaking in a discussion over the anatomy of the falafel—of which I learned to be a fried, seasoned, chickpea delicacy— just before overhearing an intellectual dietetic debate regarding whether or not gluten provides a substantial amount of protein in wheat.
It instantly became apparent to me that the common thread of the Co-op’s “paid workers” is their passion for creating honest, wholesome food. Regardless of their background, major, year or authenticity of vintage concert T-shirt, they are committed to “providing ethically sourced food that respects our community, animals and the planet.”
Violette, who has been employed at the Co-op for the past year, explained that his favorite part of working at the Collective is the variety he encounters each day. “Even if it seems like I’m mostly doing the same stuff, every day is different,” he explained.
Since its start, The Collective has advocated equality among its workers, boasting a non-hierarchal system of maintaining the store. Watching this concept being done in practice is far more impressive than just merely reading the claim.
“It is a lot like organized chaos,” admitted senior philosophy major and Co-op employee, Sam Cook.
“We delegate a lot and create committees to maintain order, so people are responsible for certain things. Any change has to be voted on with a 2/3 majority as well, which also goes for hiring and firing employees.”
After about an hour and a half, I picked up an organic peach white tea to accompany me out the door. Saying I was enlightened upon leaving the Co-op would be an understatement. Inspired would be a much better term.
Institutions claiming utter and total equality of employees are few and far between, and if such a place does exist, it would be rare that they could boast such efficiency and success as the Co-op without a manager or overseer calling the shots.
Junior English literature major Aiyah Sibay explained that upon applying to the Co-op in the summer of 2014, she immediately noticed the different vibe and attitude. Although she was initially intimidated by the passionate promise for honest democracy, she said she felt an indescribable pull and attraction to the workplace.
“I’m not quite sure what it was, but I felt comfortable in that space before I knew the people, before I knew what kind of ideology they practiced, and I just felt that they were very original, very unique people,” Sibay said.
“What attracted me was that I needed a job. What kept me there was this level of significance that was all of a sudden attached to not only me as an individual, but the words that came out of my mouth and the things I had to contribute.”
The laid back, positivity of Maryland’s Food Collective is reflected not only in the food served, but also in the music played, the interactions between employees and customers, as well as the Co-op’s decor.
During my time there, only a handful of early risers roamed the store, but the line of hungry customers extending out the door during the daily lunch rush proves that the Food Collective’s services and ideals are much appreciated at this university.
Featured Photo Credit: Armando Gaetanielle, 31, of Hyattsville, refilling the spicy mustard bottle for the salad and toppings station. (Cassie Osvatics/Bloc Reporter)
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