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Health, Science, Environment

Pay-What-You-Can Grocery Store To Open In South St. Louis

When Beth Neff first cracked open the door of the long-vacant diner in south St. Louis in 2017, the space looked like it hadn’t been touched in years.

Salt and pepper shakers, sugar canisters and utensils sat on the tables, covered in dust.

“It was like someone had walked out, locked the door behind them and just never came back,” Neff said. “We just had this sense that this was the place we needed to be and that needed us.”

More than three years later, Neff is poised to open a small, nonprofit grocery store in the storefront along South Broadway near Carondelet Park.

MARSH Grocery Cooperative will sell locally grown produce, bulk dry goods and other organic food on a sliding scale, based on what each customer can afford. The nonprofit’s employees are also partial owners who live in the surrounding neighborhood and help manage the organization.

 Beth Neff, founder of MARSH Grocery Cooperative, previously worked as a vegetable farmer for 25 years.
Shahla Farzan
Beth Neff, founder of MARSH Grocery Cooperative, previously worked as a vegetable farmer for 25 years.

Plum-colored Japanese eggplants and melons fill wicker baskets at the grocery store, next to rows of bulk bins stocked with organic beans and grains. Much of the produce is grown in two city lots, including a garden directly behind the grocery store.

All items are sold at cost, which means a tomato that costs 50 cents to grow and transport to the market will be priced at that amount. Customers then decide how much they can afford to pay, with the idea that people who can pay more will balance out those who pay less.

A locator map of MARSH Grocery Collaborative in south St. Louis.

Ishmaiah Moore, a worker-owner at the cooperative, was drawn to the store’s model that “prioritizes the well-being of workers over profit” and helps connect local residents to nourishing food, regardless of how much they can pay.

“We’re not yet structured as a society that recognizes food as a basic human right,” Moore said.

The grocery store will also accept SNAP benefits as payment, formerly known as food stamps.

“We wanted to intervene at the point where food systems tend to fail,” said Neff, who has worked as a vegetable farmer for 25 years. “Nutritionally dense food is really only accessible — both geographically and financially — to people in particular neighborhoods who have traditionally been unable to pay for it.”

 Ishmaiah Moore, a staff member and partial owner of the grocery cooperative.
Shahla Farzan
Ishmaiah Moore, a staff member and partial owner of the grocery cooperative.

The nonprofit has received several grants, including funds from the USDA Healthy Food Financing Initiative.

MARSH Grocery Cooperative will hold a grand opening ceremony from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, including live music and local barbeque.

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

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