Current Crush: Olympia Auset
Mercado Sagrado talks with SÜPRMARKT’S Olympia Auset.
For many people, buying a tomato is a special event. While you may be among those who casually swing by Whole Foods or your local farmer’s market when you get a hankering for some veggies, 23.5 million Americans have little to no access to fresh produce. Olympia Auset was one of those Americans. A long-time vegan, the 26-year-old healthy eating advocate discovered that maintaining a plant-based diet in her Inglewood neighborhood was, “a mission,” as she puts it. “I spent hours on the bus each time I needed groceries because fast food and liquor stores were the only options around me,” she says.
It turns out that just 60 grocery stores service South LA’s 1.3 million residents, few with quality fresh produce. Fed up with the lack of accessible—and affordable—fruits and veggies Olympia took matters into her own hands. “When I decided I wanted to eat fresh, organic food, a line was drawn. I was tired of being at the mercy of someone else when it came to my food and I understood that I wasn’t the only one who was tired—so, I started a grocery store.”
Enter SÜPRMARKT, a weekly pop-up and subscription service that brings affordable produce to those who need it most. Since July 2016 the organization has provided more than 600 cases of organic fruit, vegetables, and seeds to food deserts in Los Angeles. All this produce serves a dual purpose: nourishing people’s bodies while dispelling the idea that health and wellness is luxury reserved for the wealthy and elite.
Olympia’s work is attracting well-deserved attention. SÜPRMARKT has received funding and support from organizations like The Pollination Project, Robert Egger of LA Kitchen, and The Underground Museum. The organization will also be one of the non-profits supported by this year’s Mercado Sagrado, a wellness and arts collective.
Ever inspired by a woman who recognizes a problem and doesn’t wait for someone else to create the solution, we were thrilled to ask Olympia a few of our most pressing questions.
Wow, you’re only 26 and are already up to so much good stuff! How does your age influence your work and perspective?
I think that my age helps me bring innovation and a fresh outlook to creating solutions. It also plays into my need for immediacy, helping me see new developments in society and spurring me to create direct, relevant solutions.
How does Los Angeles inspire your work with SÜPRMARKT?
In 2016, I was living in Inglewood while working with a raw food manufacturer. I had learned about food deserts and worked at a community farm, but it wasn’t until I was living in my home city while maintaining a produce heavy diet that the term ‘food desert’ became real to me. While growing up in Los Angeles, it was almost considered normal to travel to the “white” neighborhood to get good food. I now know from direct experience with LA’s produce system that it doesn't have to be that way. Being from Los Angeles, and living in food deserts at different times in my life, has given me direct experience with the problem and enough knowledge about the city’s landscape to create solutions.
What is the primary thing that you’d like to share with people who take fresh produce for granted?
It has become clear to me that so many people have no idea about food deserts because they have simply never lived in one; they have no concept of what it is like. It is the most frustrating thing ever to not have access to what you need in your community, especially something as important as food. It is unjust.
You’ve said that people’s nutrition helps them live a better life. What does that mean?
In a simple terms, food changes your life because it changes your lifespan. In climates where fast food chains and liquor stores predominate, health issues abound. South LA for example, has obesity rates 25% higher than West LA and 13% higher than the 22% county average. In a room full of South LA residents, it is nearly impossible to ask “who has a family member with diabetes?” and not have a hand go up. African Americans are 50% more likely to live in a food desert. We also lead every other group in deaths from cancer, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Why is something so preventable so common in some areas versus others?
You’re very open about your spiritual experiences. I’d love to know how spirituality plays into your work and mission.
Spirituality is my work and mission. Spirituality is at the center of why we are alive and our disconnection from ourselves as spiritual beings is at the heart of every injustice, discomfort, and crisis we face on the planet. I understand that people must have a foundation of wellness and wholeness in order to heal and advance spiritually, so bringing great food to people who need it is one of the first things I am doing to support a shift on the planet.
What is the connection between spirituality and food?
Outside of air, food is literally the most intimate thing we take into our bodies; we invite it inside of us and it becomes us. Creating inner harmony and balance starts with food. As our vibration and thought patterns become clearer, the body stops accepting things that are not aligned with it. Animal products and processed foods cloud the clarity of the mind and the cells. Learning to become conscious of what we consume is ground zero for having the strength to change the world around us.
What role does food play in empowerment?
Food is the one thing that individuals have the most control over, the thing that is the easiest to change. While it may be challenging for me to fix the school system, or prison system, I can definitely change what is on my plate. Simultaneously, malnutrition is linked to both violent crime and scholastic underachievement.
Our current food system disempowers millions of people around the planet, as well as the planet itself. It is vital to own up to the role we each play in this system of oppression, and do what we can about it. We cannot change this planet if we cannot change the way we eat.
School lunches are a major issue in the US. Do you have any plans to take the SÜPRMARKT mission to schools?
We intend to play a vital role in helping children and parents across the planet eat well deliciously, and get back in touch with their food. We will be rolling out appearances and programming in schools in the future and have been thrilled by the work we have done with youth thus far.
Los Angeles seems like an ideal laboratory for SÜPRMARKT? What about other cities?
Los Angeles is ideal because most of the food in the country comes from California--there is ample produce that can be channeled away from waste and into the homes of people who need it. There is also a prevalent health culture, so we hope plant-based people and restaurants in affluent communities support communities in need. SÜPRMARKT is definitely needed everywhere and we plan to serve many cities as soon as we get the model down here.
Health and wellness culture is often seen as something that’s reserved for the wealthy. How are you addressing this challenge?
It has been reserved for wealthy people and that is what we are working to change. Even at $190 a month (a single person's food stamp budget) you can be vegan and eat healthily, but we have to show people how. I am interested creating and continuing my own community's culture of health.
Does community building influence how you organize your pop ups? How have you seen communities shift through your programs?
I think creating social impact is all about team work, having people and organizations big and small who bring different elements to the table. It takes various components to create a complete solution. We are a volunteer based organization and provide people powered produce. It has been a joy to bring members of our team together to create a shift in the world and provide better food for themselves and for others. People are the most important thing on the planet and it means a lot to us to reflect that.
What practices and experiences led you to the work you’re doing today?
Some of the sources of knowledge and inspiration which have lead me to my current work include You Can Heal Your Body by Louise Hay, A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn, The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ and films like Thrive, Food, Inc., and Bastards Of The Party. Vipassana meditation also changed my life.
Who is currently doing work that inspires you?
I am really inspired by The Green Wall that is being constructed across Africa with the goal of creating food and jobs and impacting the climate positively.
Be good to yourselves! Learn about what's happening in this world deeply, from real books and genuine sources. Spend time with yourself, away from gadgets, simply writing or in nature.