MARSH Cultivates Grass Roots in South City

 In Feature, Food

From the outside, the building at 6917 S. Broadway could easily be confused with a greasy spoon diner—which it was until 2010 or so. But this modest storefront in Carondelet now houses a unique cooperative that aims to give everyone the chance to have a voice in where their food comes from as well as becoming part of a thoughtful and engaged community.

MARSH, which stands for Materializing & Activating Radical Social Habitus, is the brainchild of the mother-daughter team of Beth and Esther Neff. The duo bought the building in 2017 and have spent the last couple of years renovating it. The co-op itself officially got up and running in February.

The Neffs come from an agricultural background, having owned a family farm in Indiana before returning to St. Louis, where Beth Neff spent her childhood. She also ran a CSA and so has a solid handle on what it takes to run a food program. Esther Neff spent many years in New York City as a co-founder of Panoply Performance Laboratory, an arts incubator and performance space, and she spearheads MARSH’s creative endeavors.

Beth Neff describes MARSH as a values-based, grass-roots cooperative that’s owned and run by its members. It’s also a lab of sorts, where new ideas of labor and food system can be tested, tweaked and implemented. Finally, it serves a third function as a community center and space that affords members opportunities to participate in creative events that can range from live music to readings to art installations as well as classes and other educational gatherings.

“We have a generative motive rather than a profit motive,” says Beth Neff. “We want to create a food system that includes as many people as possible.”

In early April, MARSH posted an invitation for new members on its Facebook page, highlighting how it’s helping to fill gaps in the food supply chain as well as addressing food insecurity in the St. Louis area in response to COVID-19. “For the price of one-week’s groceries, you can purchase a LIFETIME share in the co-op, shop for all your groceries online, stay safe through no-contact pickups, help keep many others safe AND support our efforts to donate grocery bundles to those in need.”

Members pay a lifetime fee of $100, which gives them one share and one vote in the co-op. Members can be worker-owners, who provide the labor to keep the co-op going; consumer-owners, who purchase MARSH’s goods and services; and producer-owners who supply the food itself. Many members fall into all three categories. The Carondelet Community Betterment Federation recently began offering sponsorships of $5 to $50 to its food pantry clients who’d like to be members. The public can also donate to MARSH’s mutual aid fund via its online shop.

MARSH’s list of producers includes small local farmers and people who might not fit into the usual definition of “producer,” like neighborhood gardeners. The co-op also has a production garden and permaculture space behind the building and recently received a grant from Slow Food Saint Louis to begin raising chickens.

MARSH Cultivates Grass Roots in South City

Because of its previous life as a restaurant, the MARSH space has a full commercial kitchen where worker-owners put together the prepared food items that are available from the co-op catalog—and make $15 an hour for their efforts. Members can place orders online at marshcoop.org or via appointment at the co-op.

Going forward, the Neffs say they’ll be looking to expand MARSH’s food offerings as well as looking into using some vacant lots in the neighborhood as additional garden spaces.

Editor’s note: Due to the stay-at-home orders related to COVID-19, please check with MARSH about its upcoming events, including the open house that was scheduled for May 19. The co-op’s kitchen continues to offer on-hand food and special orders for curbside pickup with 24 hours’ notice.)

Images courtesy of Esther and Beth Neff.

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