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A Food Cooperative Ecosystem: Regenerating through Collaboration

We envision a cooperative ecosystem that works democratically and collaboratively to activate equitable and regenerative food systems.

Photo of Beth Neff
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Spark for the Arts, Inc. (dba MARSH)

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

We are and will be collaborating with a variety of neighborhood organizations, municipal departments, local farms, university programs, and social agencies. These include and are not limited to: Carondelet Community Betterment Federation, City of St. Louis, Patch Neighborhood Association, Holly Hills Neighborhood Association, EarthDance Organic Farm School, Marshall Family Farms, Liberty Farms, Bohlen Family Farms, St. Louis University Dept. of Global and Local Justice, St. Louis International Institute, St. Louis Black Chamber of Commerce, St. Louis Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, St. Louis Mosaic Project, Washington University Office of Sustainability, Washington University Department of Urban Studies, Women in Transition.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

marshlife-art.org

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Saint Louis, Missouri

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Saint Louis, MO

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Spark, Inc. (dba MARSH) emerged out of cooperative organizing as a 501(c)3 not-for-profit to design and explore emergent models of human-scaled generative social and ecological practice. We achieve this purpose through creative/artistic projects; through intentional community engagement across constructed human boundaries; through reciprocal education; and through generative and democratic processes and actions in the areas of food, energy, collaboration, and relationship. Much of this work bridged the locations of our organizers from rural Indiana and Michigan to New York City, but we were looking for a more permanent home that combined our mission under an urban arts and agriculture umbrella and where we could best achieve impact within a climate/ecological/social justice framework.

The lead organizer of this project grew up in St. Louis and has extensive family ties in the area. Another member of the MARSH team has strong connections to the region, both personally and artistically. In December of 2017, we moved into a dilapidated mixed-use building in the low-income, racially diverse neighborhood of Carondelet, St. Louis. We renovated the building in the context of performative social practices, incorporating labor and materials shares, neighborhood participation, open food-share invitations, and social/artistic events. With our combined backgrounds in arts organization, parent/youth education, and food activism and our urban garden + diner/gathering space + licensed kitchen, we imagine our emerging cooperative enterprise as a web of connections between those who grow food, those who prepare food, those who practice intentionality around food choices, those who need food, and those who simply enjoy eating food, especially in community with others. A primary focus is obstructing the boundaries between those “categories”.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

St. Louis is located on the west side of a steep bend in the Mississippi River just below the confluence of the Mississippi with the Missouri River. As the traditional “Gateway to the West,” St. Louis is positioned historically, geographically, and mythologically, as the meeting of east and west, north and south. Once the fourth largest city in the nation and built with the architectural extravagance afforded by local brick and flat stone to house over three million souls, the population of the city proper (not including extensive and rapidly growing suburbs) is hovering around ten percent of that total and, in most neighborhoods, still declining. Hardest hit, by far, is the north side of the city where primarily African American neighborhoods beyond the housing redlines of zoning and economic policy are plagued with extensive vacancy, deteriorated buildings, and boarded-up businesses. Contaminated soil, buried debris, toxic air, and incredibly tense social relationships between residents and the city (infrastructure, administration, police) further complicate any potential efforts to “revitalize” a broken system. This extreme segregation sits as a crumbling foundation to precariously perched and unequally distributed thriving arts scenes, welcoming lgbtqi+ environments, nationally-recognized immigrant resettlement programs, shining examples of redevelopment, deeply fertile soil from years of river flooding, a municipal composting program, and some struggling progressive leadership.

St. Louis is extremely proud of its foodie culture. “Farm to table” concepts are intrinsic to the restaurant scene and one of the oldest and most vibrant neighborhoods is organized around a farmers market (Soulard). Several other farmers markets attract decent Saturday morning crowds for produce, meat, and dairy grown within 100 miles of the city in both Missouri and Illinois. While conventional farming still dominates St. Louis’s rural perimeter, some sustainable operations, particularly those producing range-fed meat, provide food to the city. As with every other aspect of St. Louis culture, there is a deep divide between those whose incomes afford access to these products and those whose primary source of food is one or more of the ubiquitous food pantries, food banks, and soup kitchens (135 at last count). Still, despite severe income, class, and race segregation, there is a tangible sense among both persistent and new city dwellers that the fabric of something worthwhile is still intact in the city and can be, with intense self-examination and purposeful action, re-stitched into a viable tapestry of regeneration, equity, and resilience.

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

2200000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

The “success” of existing food systems is measured by economic viability. The concept of sustainability was supposed to have expanded the criteria for assessment to include ecological and social impact. Instead, the word and the concept have just come to mean economic viability over time without significantly addressing the ways that our profit-based food systems continue to poison our soil, air, water, climate, and bodies. The emerging framework of environmental justice helps to elucidate the specific ways that existing food systems build corporate capital while compromising nutrition, make safer, healthier alternatives accessible only to the select audiences who can afford to pay for them, concentrate agricultural resources and wealth primarily in the hands of agribusiness landholders, create demand for animal-based and highly processed foods while regionally consolidating production of fresh fruits and vegetables, and erase knowledge resources related to gardening, cultural foodways, waste, cooking, cooperation, and health. Over the next thirty years, the United States will need to reckon not only with the direct consequences of and necessary action demanded by the climate crisis (carbon sequestration, carbon-neutral energy sources, mitigation of rising oceans, rising temperatures, drying or flooding agricultural regions, fires, etc.), but with the root fallacies of economic growth on a finite planet. Profit- and fossil-fuel-based food systems, above all, will need to genuinely reflect costs – to human health, to soil, water, and air quality, and to the future of the planet – and reflect new paradigms of “wealth” in relationship to resource preservation, creation, and distribution.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

While democratic cooperative enterprises have been around since at least the mid-19th century, their capacity to broadly disrupt and replace extractive and exploitive economic and agricultural systems is only now being recognized and purposefully applied. Cooperatives provide an opportunity to emphasize principles over profit, recapture the original meaning of “sustainability” to include social (as among individuals, families, communities, regions) and ecological systems, reconfigure the concept of “benefit” to address fair, equitable, and non-competitive exchange, make natural and organically-produced foods more broadly accessible, allow self-determination in food choices, reclaim the means of production through group ownership of land and other agricultural resources, improve physical, emotional, and social well-being, and revive and expand shared knowledge and cultural resources.

Cooperatives have traditionally fallen into one of three categories: consumer cooperatives which pool resources to allow members to purchase local/natural/organic products in bulk/at wholesale prices; producer cooperatives that are seeking more economical access to raw products and group access to larger and more lucrative (or more sustainable) markets; worker-owned cooperatives in which profits are distributed more fairly among workers and workplace policies and procedures are governed by those most directly affected by them. In all cases, decision-making is designed to be more democratic (one share=one vote) and more socially and ecologically concerned. Our vision is to combine all three models. In doing so, we can help to eliminate the conflict between producers and consumers (any member can be both); provide jobs for our neighbors dividing orders, growing food in neighborhood plots, and preparing food in our licensed kitchen; build a networked locally-grown food supply; and help transform resource-intensive farming practices and vacant lots into regenerative biocultures. In contrast to conventional, capitalistic growth models, cooperative models embrace “growth” as a set of systemic challenges: how can we grow in our attention to justice? How can we grow in our welcoming of people with diverse experiences, backgrounds, and points of view? How can we grow mutual benefit so more and more people have self-determination in regards to food production, distribution, and consumption? How can we grow our use of technology to promote more humane economic, social, and ecological systems? How can we grow our complex relationships around food, soil, and environmental health?

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Establishing a not-for-profit cooperative ecosystem in a poor neighborhood will have a significant impact on historical and systemic segregation and the accompanying mindsets and practices. Poor and middle income people will have significantly healthier and more economical food choices. The intransigent conflict between “artisanal” organic farmers and low-income access to healthy food will be upended by the mutual benefit of a larger, more consistent market for standard vegetables, humane economy, and the actual physical proximity of exchange and participation. Democratic decision-making will replace the top-down management model, profit-driven extraction, and segregated social relationships of existing food consumption with collaboration and connection. The jobs created by a community-owned sustainable enterprise will contribute to equitable redistribution of wealth and a sense of contribution to the overall well-being of the community.

Over time, this model will expand to neighborhoods throughout the city, each case responding to the needs and desires of its specific participants but connected to the whole. Abandoned properties will gain new life as agricultural and enterprise hubs with new investment coming from cooperative capital and benefiting participants instead of through private and often non-local development (when it happens at all.) This radical impact on local land use will also contribute to carbon reduction and sequestration with gardens, food forests, and composting replacing vacant or grassy yards, and healthier diets concentrated lower on the food chain and less reliant on transportation, chemical inputs, and fossil fuels. Community members will have safe and welcoming gathering places, power over local issues and leadership, all while neighborhoods become greener, more attractive, and highly livable.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

In 2050, the St. Louis Food Council is celebrating its 25th year. Having started as a single food cooperative in Carondelet, the Council is now made up of over two dozen cooperative ecosystems, each connecting local food producers with consumers, offering employment opportunities for gardeners, kitchen workers, and organizers at livable wages, and developing vacant properties into gardens, cooperative enterprises (manufacture of cloth bags to replace single use plastics, value-added food production, and recycled lumber greenhouse kits, for instance), and composting sites. The co-ops come together to make annual seed orders, exchange plants, hold workshops on cooperative organization and principles, and to develop a schedule of activities for the year (cooking classes, web design, cooperative laws and accounting, composting, etc.) but operate independently according to unique bylaws, histories, desires, and experiences.

One of the great successes of the Food Council has been the Cooperative Exchange Program. The five original co-ops voted to use their capital to “seed” new cooperative ecosystems around the city by offering salary, technology, and material costs to a small team of farmers and neighborhood cooperative organizers for design and development. The city agreed to donate the lots and, for every developed lot, to plant an equivalent space into trees as part of an overall climate mitigation plan. The program got a slow start (it was hard to find qualified staff and someone in each neighborhood had to apply) but as neighborhoods gained more experience operating cooperatives and farming urban lots, the number and qualifications of applicants exploded and, with the help of additional grants, ten new cooperatives were established and the Food Council was formed as a repository of knowledge and communication between the co-ops and with the city, other communities, and potential funders. Neighborhood teams not only grow their own food but also connect with suburban and regional farmers who are interested in growing food or transforming their operations to accommodate this new and dynamic collaboration. The teams provide expertise in everything from aquaculture, beekeeping, and small grain production to rural energy cooperative development, large scale sheet mulching, and low-energy season extension. Several co-ops have formed outside of city limits: one example is a group of dried bean producers and another is a worker-owned organic dairy with a couple of retail shops selling local and sustainably produced milk, cheese, yogurt, and ice cream.

A documentary project focused on the St. Louis cooperative ecosystem interviewed participants from several neighborhoods around the city. The most common observation was an appreciation for the chance to know one’s neighbors, share new cross-cultural food and cooking ideas, and join together in common cause. Significant numbers of respondents described being healthier, more energetic, and more confident that they were making positive changes to address such health issues as diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. A number of interviewees mentioned feeling safer in their communities and particularly grateful that their teenagers were gathering productively, earning some income, and learning important farming, culinary, and management skills. An alderman who had initially resisted policy initiatives related to food access and climate resilience spoke of his pride in a more unified and equitable city.  

For its 25th anniversary, the Food Council is sponsoring a city-wide tour and convention where cooperatives can showcase their projects, products, and spaces. Admission, entertainment, and food are free and open to all as is public transportation and the city bike share for the day. Video conversation spaces will be set up to make connections with other citizen planners from around the country and the world. It is sometimes hard to remember a time when St. Louis was not a leading example of how a city can become a place with a food future imagined collaboratively by the people who live there.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Twitter

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Photo of Zsofia Pasztor
Team

Our visions have a few similarities. Lots of shared spaces in the open public area.

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