By Horus Alas
The Maryland Food Co-op — a vegan-friendly dining cooperative in the Stamp Student Union run by owner-workers who are primarily students — is scheduled to close May 31. Worker-owners launched a petition Monday, May 6 to boycott university donations in response.
Senior government and politics major and Co-op worker-owner Michael Brennan said the food venue has been trying to negotiate payment plans for mounting debts with the university, but has had their proposals shut out this semester.
After an April 10 meeting in which both parties tried to come to terms on the debt, Brennan said it “didn’t seem like they would change their mind on anything. [We] launched this campaign [Monday] to try to get them to negotiate with us.”
Both Brennan and Stamp Director Marsha Guenzler-Stevens put the Co-op’s debt to the Stamp at upwards of $40,000.
In addition to those obligations, however, Guenzler-Stevens said the Co-op had outstanding debts with the state of Maryland for sales tax, as well as vendors and fellow worker-owners. She estimated balances for vendors to be at about $9,000 and for worker-owners at $2,000.
Guenzler-Stevens said in January, “[The Stamp] had a best-case scenario and a worst-case scenario in mind for how things with the Co-op would go. Things trended toward the worst-case scenario,” as the semester went on and the Co-op incurred more debt, she said.
Brennan and Guenzler-Stevens agreed that a number of factors — including more dining options within the Stamp, the introduction of dining hall points and food venues within department buildings — conspired to erode the Co-op’s decades-old business niche.
“Departments that contract and subsidize [dining facilities] now have to compete with [pre-existing] businesses,” Brennan said. “It makes it difficult to say to a cohort of worker-owners, ‘change everything about your business and get out of your debt hole in four months.’”
Despite the impasse in negotiations, petition organizers are confident they can pressure the university into proposing new terms for the Co-op.
Jacob Nast, a senior eco-tech design major and member of the Solidarity Co-op initiative, said he hopes the boycott will raise awareness among university higher-ups and donors, including President Wallace Loh.
“President Loh has told us it’s not a monetary issue; it’s a political issue,” Nast said. “A lot of this can be toned down if the Stamp at least proposed a community space alternative … People here don’t know where else we can find this kind of community.”
Representatives from the Office of the President would not confirm President Loh’s comment, and suggested reaching out to the Office of Strategic Communications for verification. Strategic Communications Director of Communications Natifia Mullings could not be reached for comment.
Guenzler-Stevens referred to the boycott as coming “too little, too late.”
Brennan identified Maryland Sen. Jim Rosapepe —a Democrat representing Prince George’s and Anne Arundel Counties —as a supporter of the Co-op.
Rosapepe said he hadn’t seen the petition, but described the Co-op as a “terrific entrepreneurial effort” and hoped organizers would be able to make it solvent again.
Guenzler-Stevens pushed back against the claim the Co-op’s chief woes are not monetary. “Forty-thousand dollars is a lot of money,” she said. If the Stamp wasn’t able to recover those negative balances, they might be forced to take measures like increase student fees, she added.
The Stamp intends to carry out renovations for their IT and maintenance spaces over the summer, and would likely use the Co-op’s current space for personnel in those departments, according to Guenzler-Stevens. She said she would support the Co-op being “reconstituted” once its accounts are solvent.
As things stand, however, the 44-year-old Maryland Food Co-op, first launched in 1975, will close its doors at the end of the month. Worker-owners hosted an exhibit and musical performances outside the Co-op’s space in Stamp on May 10 to honor the venue’s history and legacy.
Featured Photo Credit: The main entrance to the Maryland Food Co-op in the Stamp Student Union building Friday, May 10. A sign outside advertises the Co-op’s exhibits and performances honoring the venue’s 44-year history, as Stamp officials move forward with closing the Co-op May 31. (Horus Alas)
Horus Alas can be reached at email@example.com.