Say Fromage: Wesleyan Cheese Co-Op Debuts with 400 Members

The cheese co-op established a blog for sharing recipes.

At first blush, it’s all about the cheese.

But Zachary Malter ’13 says the new Wesleyan Cheese Co-op can be more than a source of variations on Gouda, Cheddar and Provolone – it’s a social and political experience in the making.

“Food is not just a source of nourishment,” says Malter, chair of the Wesleyan Student Association’s dining committee and an organizer of the cheese co-op, which made its first distribution on Feb. 16. “It’s also a source of community building.”

Malter envisions wine-and-cheese socials where Wesleyan’s cheese lovers, other foodies and friends-of-foodies mingle. The co-op has already established a blog for sharing recipes:

Suggested by managers at Bon Appétit, which operates dining facilities at Wesleyan, the co-op was established by students and the company this fall. Wesleyan also has a Fruit and Veggie Co-op and a Raw Milk Co-op.

One cheese co-op share entitles the shareholder to two 8-ounce portions of fresh cheese from Cato Corner Farm in Colchester, Conn., six times per semester.

A share costs 92 points (basically the equivalent of $92) and can be purchased by individuals or two- and three-person groups to facilitate cost-sharing.

“There’s really so much you can do with it,” Malter, a CSS major from Westchester County, N.Y., said of cheese.

Cato Corner Farm, a 40-cow family dairy farm in Colchester, Conn. – about 17 miles east of Middletown – supplies the cheese. Elizabeth MacAlister and Mark Gillman, the mother and son who own and operate the farm, make a dozen cheese varieties from milk produced by their free-range Jersey cows. They don’t feed the animals hormones or subtherapeutic antibiotcs.

The cheeses range from “mild and milky to runny and pungent to sharp and firm,” according to Cato.

The first two varieties shipped to Wesleyan were Cato’s Vivace Bambino (something like a Swiss Emmental) and Dutch Farmstand (a variation on Gouda).

The cheese co-op found an eager clientele for its debut semester: 399 students signed up by the mid-January registration deadline, along with one faculty member, Associate Professor of History Magda Teter.

Malter said every current class year at Wesleyan is represented among the 400 individual shareholders, with a heavy contingent of juniors and seniors, whose meal plans typically carry more points than those of younger students.

“We have a lot of upperclassmen buying into the single-share system,” he says.

Michele Le ‘11, a self-described “huge fan of cheese” who eats it raw with fruit or crackers, as well as cooked in paninis, pasta omelettes, for example, said the co-op gives her access to cheeses she’s unlikely to find in the average grocery.

“I love just about every kind of cheese there is out there, so this opportunity to try new and unfamiliar cheeses was exciting for me,” says the dual government-East Asian Studies major from Hawaii.

Le, a solo shareholder, says residual meal plan points from the fall semester made the 92-point cost seem all the more reasonable.

“Basically, there was no real reason not to join,” she says.

Lydia Rex ’14, who has a group share with her roommate, also calls cheese a favorite food and says the co-op enables her to maintain a standard of quality she enjoyed at home.

“Not a day goes by where I don’t eat it in some dish,” she says. “I have been living in England for the past eight years where good quality cheese is easily available, so it has always been a part of my diet.”

Rex and her roommate devoured their initial 16 ounces of Cato Family Farm cheese in about a week: “We tried to pace ourselves but we couldn’t stop eating it!” Rex says.

For many members, the cheese co-op also represents a way to support small-scale, local sustainable agriculture.

“I love the idea that the cheese comes from a local farm, from cows pastured in a natural setting,” says Teter, currently the lone faculty member among the co-op’s initial membership of 400. “I feel that participating in the coop, I help — admittedly on a tiny scale — the environment.”

Managers at Bon Appetit, principally Michael Strumpf and Bernice Laille, help the co-op’s members store and prepare the cheeses for campus distribution. Cato Corner Farm ships wheels of cheese to Bon Appetit’s campus address by UPS for slicing, packaging and distribution a day later, said Malter.

The next pickup date for co-op shareholders is scheduled for Wed., March 2. The next opportunity to buy shares will come later this spring or early next fall.

Eventually the cheese co-op might add other suppliers.

Says Malter, “We want there to be as much variety as possible.”