Most meals on Temple University's main campus are served by a huge, multinational food-services company, Sodexo.
But in a sunny room tucked away in one academic building, students at the Rad Dish Cafe are cooking up something different: salads made with produce from the Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative and local-food distributor Common Market, sandwiches on bread baked at Philadelphia's Wild Flour Bakery, coffee from local fair-trade roaster Greenstreet, and juices from Neuron Nectars, a Temple graduate's company.
This modest cafe represents a big idea. Members say it's the only student-run food cooperative in the city.
Such organizations - serving local, organic, and typically vegetarian fare made by and for students - have been springing up at colleges around the country.
It's not a new concept: The Maryland Food Collective, a worker-owned cooperative on the University of Maryland campus, has been around since 1975. But the movement has been attracting renewed interest, particularly since the nationwide launch in 2010 of a nonprofit, CoFED, that helps students around the country get food cooperatives up and running.
That was how students at the University of Delaware in Newark got the idea to turn their regular potluck dinner into the Down to Earth Food Coop, a nonprofit whose members do work trade with local farms to earn produce for twice-weekly vegetarian dinners, as well as monthly community dinners that are open to all.
"Students couldn't find vegan or vegetarian or organic food that fit their values [at the dining hall], so they started meeting together to share meals," said Erica Meier, who graduated in May and remains on the co-op's board. Three years later, about 90 members - mostly, but not all, students - have joined the co-op. In return for the meals, they pay $35 to $55 and work 15 hours per semester, farming, cooking, and cleaning.
Dinners are held in members' homes or at the Newark Bike Project, a nearby nonprofit. They'd like to find a permanent location. At least for now, though, it won't be on campus.
"The [university's] contract with Aramark is pretty strict," Meier said. "It doesn't allow any food not provided by Aramark to be in any university spaces."
At Temple, it's a markedly different story: The Rad Dish Cafe was born out of classroom projects and launched with $30,000 in seed funding from the university.
Kathleen Grady, Temple's director of sustainability and the co-op's adviser, said students in an environmental studies class tasked with thinking up ways to green the campus first came up with the idea of a sustainable cafe - "one that they could control, so they knew that greenwashing [labeling foods green that aren't] wasn't happening."
Through independent studies, they developed guiding documents and a business plan, and pitched it to administrators. The university committed to providing start-up capital and renovating the space.
The cafe in Ritter Hall, near 13th Street and Montgomery Avenue, opened in January for the spring semester, closed for the summer, and reopened in September for the fall term. It's open to students (and the public with photo ID) weekdays from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., until classes end Dec. 7. Members who pay $25 or put in 15 hours of "sweat equity" get a 10 percent discount and voting rights in co-op decisions.
The fall menu includes coconut-curry soup, hummus grilled cheese, a beet-and-lentil burger, chia-seed pudding, and tempeh-cabbage salad.
For students like Claire Pope, a social-work major and co-head of human resources, the cafe represents a quality-of-life improvement.
"I was on a meal plan, and it was very hard for me to eat as a vegetarian," she said. "When I learned there was a place on campus that was going to offer good vegetarian food at a reasonable price, I was really excited."
At about $450 in daily sales, it's not putting the dining hall out of business just yet. Nor is it breaking even, though Grady expects it will be by the end of the semester.
Either way, she said, its value as a teaching tool is boundless.
For example: "In the beginning, students weren't factoring certain things into their pricing. Initially, they based pricing on market research of what students wanted to pay," she said. They've since figured out that ingredient and staff costs must also be factors. "This is an academic exercise," she said, "so that's part of the process."
The impact is evident on students like Taylor Stack, who decided to major in entrepreneurship because of her work with the co-op.
As a sourcing committee member, she develops the recipes herself and tests them on her roommates.
"When we run into a shortage of something, I have to adjust," she said. "We've had a couple carrot-pocalypses. We had carrots in every menu item and ran out of carrots!"
Peter Usilton, who graduated from Temple in May, said he had already put the lessons he learned at Rad Dish to work.
He cofounded 2 Dirty Dudes, a start-up urban farm in Olney that aims to provide educational opportunities for low-income residents, and a year-round supply of microgreens to restaurant kitchens. So far, clients are Talula's Garden and Bridgid's in Fairmount.
His work on the co-op gave him a leg up, he said, "learning everything that goes into starting a business - all the legal paperwork, the insurance, health and safety issues."
The challenge of sourcing local produce for the cafe was what sparked his interest in microgreens, he said. "I learned about the inconsistency of local food. So, we're looking to change that."
At the cafe during the lunch rush, Elliot Wilson, a sophomore at Temple's Tyler School of Art, was hanging student paintings on the walls. A sweat-equity co-op member, he also volunteers his time organizing open-mic nights and hauling scraps to the Temple community garden for compost.
"I'd much rather eat here than at a food truck," he said. "It's definitely my favorite place on campus. I'm pretty much determined for it not to fail."
Makes 6 servings
1½ packed cup of grated beet
½ packed cup of chopped onion
2/3 packed cup of grated carrot
1 teaspoon of minced garlic
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon allspice
2 tablespoons ground chia seeds
3 tablespoons water
1 cup of flour
1 cup lentils
1 tablespoon oil, for cooking burgers
Beet Burger Sauce:
1 cup vegan mayonnaise
1 teaspoon lime juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon hot sauce
6 brioche buns
1. Grate and combine the beets and carrots (about 11/2 large beets and 11/2 large carrots).
2. Add chopped onion.
3. Add minced garlic.
4. Combine ground chia seeds and water, and stir until gel forms.
5. Add the gel and lentils to the mixture.
6. Mix the spices, salt, and flour together, and stir into the mixture, little by little.
7. The mixture will be sticky, but should be able to form balls.
8. Measure out ½ cup portions, and roll into balls.
9. Form the balls into patties.
10. To cook the burgers, heat oil in a large skillet.
11. When oil is hot, add burgers, and cook until both sides turn crisp and become a deep purple (if using red beets).
12. Serve on brioche bun with beet burger sauce.
- From Rad Dish Cafe
Per serving with 1 tablespoon burger sauce: 630 calories; 23 grams protein; 37 gram carbohydrates; 5 grams sugar; 26 grams fat; 75 milligrams cholesterol; 832 milligrams sodium; 21 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 9 servings
1/2 tablespoon oil
3 cups of sliced carrots (about 4 carrots)
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon and 1 teaspoon of curry powder
¼ teaspoon turmeric
¼ teaspoon cumin
¼ teaspoon coriander
½ teaspoon chili powder
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon salt
3 cups of chopped cabbage
32 ounces vegetable stock
15 ounces chick peas
1/3 cup uncooked quinoa
27 ounces unsweetened coconut milk
1. Put ½ tablespoon of oil into a pot on medium heat, and allow it to heat up.
2. Slice the carrots into ¼-inch coins, and add to the oil. (A mandolin works well if you have one.)
3. Add garlic to the carrots and oil, and sauté for 3-5 minutes.
4. Add the salt, curry powder, turmeric, cumin, coriander, cayenne pepper, and brown sugar, and stir.
5. Add the veggie stock, chick peas, cabbage, and quinoa.
6. Let simmer for 15 minutes
7. Add 27 ounces of coconut milk, and simmer for an additional 5 minutes.
- From Rad Dish Cafe