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MARSH Grocery closes in St. Louis. Its pay-what-you-can model served low-income residents

A pay-what-you-can grocery store in south St. Louis will close July 22, three years after opening.

MARSH Grocery and Diner sold locally grown produce, dry goods and prepared meals in Carondelet with sliding-scale prices based on what each customer could afford. The nonprofit also functioned as a cooperative where shoppers could hold shares in the store.

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

“The idea [was] to have a grassroots sustainable food system,” said Beth Neff, a founding member of the cooperative.

Neff said the store was initially supported by grants from the USDA Healthy Food Financing Initiative and others that supplemented the cost of selling expensive food for low prices. When the money ran out, the market on South Broadway Street failed to generate enough business to remain open.

“It turned out that the location is really a barrier,” Neff said.

But Neff has no regrets, she said, because MARSH was intended to support an area struggling with food insecurity.

“We located in this neighborhood specifically because we wanted to close the gap,” Neff said. “Quality food, natural food, organic food – those kinds of things are usually only found in upscale neighborhoods. So we wanted to shift the model and make the best quality foods available to the lowest income people.”
Now, Neff said she worries about customers like Santiago Bianco, who relied on the market to buy affordable food that met his dietary needs.

“I've grown a bond with this grocery store, which I guess I've never quite done before,” Bianco said. “Most people, I don't think, would form a bond with their grocery store because it's sort of a faceless, nameless entity.”

Bianco said he is not looking forward to buying from chain supermarkets, where he feels there is little respect for customers.

“Seldom do you have an increase in quality with a decrease in price at the same time,” he said.

Beth Neff, a 64-year-old co-owner of the MARSH Grocery Cooperative, on Tuesday, July 11, 2023, at the store’s cafe in the Carondelet neighborhood.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Beth Neff, a 64-year-old co-owner of the MARSH Grocery Cooperative, on Tuesday at the store’s cafe in the Carondelet neighborhood. The grocery co-op is closing after three years serving south St. Louis.

Neff said she knew the store would be a financial risk, but she’s still disappointed about it closing.

“People are losing their jobs,” she said. “There's been a huge investment in learning and creating here, and that part is heartbreaking.”

The store was one of many MARSH Cooperative projects, most of which will not dissolve. The organization plans to continue work in the community and will host a climate resilience symposium this fall.

“I do feel good about the foundation that we built,” Neff said. “We have a community that is excited about what we can do to address issues that are important to us.”

In its final days, MARSH Grocery will sell its remaining food at discounted prices.

Lilley Halloran was a Summer '23 News Intern at St. Louis Public Radio. She is studying Journalism and Constitutional Democracy at the University of Missouri.