|If you haven’t been to the new MARSH Grocery yet, here’s a peak. You can still place an order any Tuesday before 10 a.m. from the whole catalog at marshcoop.org for pickup the following Saturday OR just stop in Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Saturday between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. or Friday between 4 and 8 p.m.|
WE’RE NOW SO EXCITED ABOUT THIS!
Since the MARSH Grocery Cooperative opened at the end of July, we have received a couple of common questions. The first is “why a cooperative?” and the second is “why should someone join?”
I thought I’d begin with the first question and then respond to the second in another post.
At this point, most people in our audience know what a cooperative is (most basically, a mutual benefit economic system democratically managed by equity shareholders) but may not be fully aware of how it compares to more conventional business structures on one end of the spectrum and public institutions on the other. I’ll try to provide an outline here.
The most prevalent type of economic organization in a capitalist system is a corporation. Corporations can be anything from small businesses to giant multi-national enterprises, operate for the purpose of earning profit, and are generally formed to distribute tax liabilities in order to protect their owners (not for profit corporations are an exception to the profit part but do, like other corporations, assign or elect a board of directors and are formed to separate the individuals involved from “corporate” activities.) It is important to point out that some cooperatives also earn profits and may even distribute them to members like a public corporation does. The key difference, though, is that a corporation exists to establish a separation between the entity and its owners while a cooperative is essentially the opposite: it exists to promote an association of mutual benefit among its participants and to expand the access to benefits instead of multiplying them at some people’s expense for selective distribution.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have public institutions. These can be parks, state universities, libraries, museums, for example, anything owned by the government and operated for public benefit. They may have a board, certainly have a budget that sometimes makes them seem financially-driven, but they exist, by charter or mission, for public benefit purposes.
One way to get a good handle on the impact of these divergent entities is to take a close look at the money stream. Let’s imagine that the corporation in question is a grocery chain. The goal of the chain is to make a profit either for owners or shareholders. Money, some of which was probably borrowed from a financial institution which now has a stake in the company’s success, is spent to buy products, prices are set to cover the cost of the products, the cost of infrastructure, labor costs, and to cover whatever level of lifestyle the owners have determined for themselves (or the level of distribution to stockholders who will take their investments elsewhere if they are not satisfied by the rate of return.) Workers are paid as little as the owners can get away with to maintain that margin of profit and consumers pay the prices on the shelf, often choosing the least expensive (and least nutritious or sustainable) products in order to make their food dollars stretch the furthest. Money earned by the company is rarely or minimally reinvested in the community, the store footprint prevents the space from being used for purposes other than shopping and parking, and both consumers and workers are at the mercy of corporate profits with little or no say about nutrition, community benefit, or quality of life.
Let’s say that the public entity in question is a park. Public funds (tax money) is used to build the park and there could be some donations involved, especially if there is a special project or event. The hope is that the community was involved in the design process, determining whether the space is used for ball diamonds, a playground, a picnic pavilion, or just open grassy fields, but this is not a given. Public funds are then used to employ park workers who mow and paint and pick up trash, and also for other maintenance costs such as gas for mowers, new equipment, asphalt for paving . . . you get the picture. No profit is involved and everyone who pays taxes makes a contribution to a space intended to benefit a significant segment of the community.
So MARSH, as a cooperative that is also a not-for-profit corporation, is somewhere in the middle. We’re at least partially a grocery entity (also an urban farm and a social justice laboratory) so funds from sales and memberships are pooled and then used to purchase products in bulk or quantity that can then become available to the community. Because we’re a cooperative and our goal is mutual benefit, the products are chosen through a “principle” lens, promoting health, sustainability, fair labor practices, local economy, small family businesses, neighborhood quality of life, etc. And, again, because we’re a cooperative, product choices are based on the preferences of members who can request alternative or additional items or order their own from an online catalog. The markup on products covers only the cost of making those products available because there is no profit aspect to the operation. (In addition, our sliding scale makes the products available even below cost, based on the belief and value that some participants in the system will willingly pay a bit more in order to help support those who need to pay less. Even with paying 10 or 20 percent more, the cost of items is still far below “suggested retail price.” This is NOT true of every or even most cooperatives.) But, back to the money stream. MARSH is a cooperative with not-for-profit parentage so that we can expand the benefits of the cooperative model. We, like the park department, get some public funding (grants), some donations, and memberships also contribute to financial stability. Also, like the park, volunteers may contribute, in our case by growing food, packaging food, or preparing food in the kitchen.
While we sell food, our model and our funding mechanisms more closely resemble that of a public park and its goal of mutual benefit. But, what does mutual benefit actually mean? Well, at MARSH it means the following:Fair wages to all workers. MARSH is also organized for worker management, which means no pay hierarchy, democratic decision-making, workers setting their own hours and schedules, flexible and rotating roles and concentrations, community support, and full (voluntary) participation in any and all aspects of the operation.Food that promotes well-being, made accessible both financially (sliding scale) and geographically (store location) for anyone who chooses to participate.Open space. Members are actively invited to participate in the co-op by planning events, making products, growing food, cooking a meal for the co-op community, volunteering in the garden, store, or kitchen, purchasing groceries for themselves and others, participating in the sliding scale, making a financial contribution, etc.Reinvesting in the community and emphasizing reciprocity in our relationships.Making ethics-based decisions rather than profit-based ones.Why a cooperative? The simple answer is participation, because what matters most to local quality of life, to a non-exploitive and non-extractive economy, and to a just and equitable future, is simply acting out our values. MARSH is a cooperative because of the people who care and choose to participate in it.