Recent decades have seen an overall decline in eating club participation and a growing share of Princeton’s student body opting to go independent and join co-ops. These trends are driven both by a growing inclination towards self-sufficient and communal modes of living and by the eating clubs’ financial barriers to entry.
While more students are choosing to be independent, difficulties remain for those who do so on a campus where time is short and stress is high. Co-ops provide an elegant solution: sharing both the workload (cooking, cleanup, etc.) and the food produced among a community of students.
Since the establishment of Two-Dickinson in the ’70s, the number of co-ops has grown to five, plus Forbes’ Pink House, which considers itself “a living and learning community,” adding up to fewer than 200 spots for students. These co-ops range in size, but they share a common method and goal: shared responsibilities, a welcoming and warm community, and affordable dues. The average co-op costs $600 per semester, yielding a yearly cost that stands in stark contrast with the near-five-figure cost of most eating clubs.
And yet, the demand for co-ops far exceeds the number of available spots. All of Princeton’s officially recognized co-ops have a lottery system to determine who gets these coveted spots, and conversations with some co-op leaders reveal that the waiting list for an individual co-op, which might have only a dozen spots open up every semester, can be several hundred people long. Demand is high, and it’s only growing. The University, however, has expressed no intention of expanding Princeton’s eating club infrastructure to catch up to this demand.
Simultaneously, many students are choosing to forgo joining eating clubs because of the high cost of membership. It is not uncommon for students or their families to take out loans to cover the cost of an eating club. Even among students receiving financial aid packages that include a full food allowance, which could cover nearly the entire cost of joining an eating club, it is often a much more viable financial decision to cook for oneself or join a co-op, putting those extra several thousand dollars of the eating allowance into savings or other expenses. Because of this, eating clubs — despite their diversity and financial aid efforts, which provide a small share of students with aid that ranges in the hundreds of dollars, not the thousands — have failed to be truly diverse and inclusive spaces.
It is because of these two trends — a growing demand for co-ops, and the eating clubs’ financial barriers to entry — that a group of students (including myself) has decided to act. When we heard that the Board of Governors of Charter Club was soliciting proposals to take the club in “a bold new direction,” the idea emerged: let’s keep the best of what it means for Charter to be an eating club, such as the beautiful social space, and shift to a co-op dining model in which members distribute cooking and other responsibilities — allowing us to cut the cost of membership to a fraction of what it currently is. The preliminary numbers we were given confirmed our intuitions: turning Charter into a co-op eating club is indeed a bold idea, but it is also viable and financially feasible.
We believe this is the solution that answers both the demand for more co-op style dining and for lower barriers to entry for eating clubs — while also positioning Charter to be ahead of the curve for the future of dining at Princeton. The Board of Governors now has the power to issue a new charter for the eating club. It has a momentous opportunity to show the vision and foresight to seize on the direction in which Princeton’s campus is heading and to change Charter to fulfill the student body’s desire: an affordable, truly inclusive co-op eating club.
Stav Bejerano is a sophomore from Newton, MA. He can be reached at email@example.com.