A South L.A. Native Experienced the Food Desert — Now She's Trying to Fix It
Olympia Auset sets up shop in Leimert Park most Sundays to sell organic produce and sign customers up for delivery subscriptions.
On a recent, sweltering Sunday in Leimert Park, community members mill about the neighborhood’s park plaza for the weekly drum circle and swap meet, as the sound of live music intermingles with that of old classics being pumped from a speaker system. Across the street from the action, underneath a large portable tent, stands 26-year-old Olympia Auset and her one-woman farmers market, Süprmarkt. Celebrating its one-year anniversary this month, Süprmarkt is part produce delivery service, part pop-up organic grocer.
A modest operation, Auset’s table is covered with a striped tablecloth and lined with boxes of strawberries, a pile of mangoes, rows of pineapples and crates full of kale, bananas, apples, cucumbers and more. In the midst of a trickle of visits from friends and local characters (most of whom are greeted with a wide smile and a hug), one customer asks if Auset is selling dates again today.
“No dates today, sorry,” Auset says.
While this scene may seem run-of-the-mill to Angelenos lucky enough to easily access weekly farmers markets and health-food stores, in many South L.A. neighborhoods, fresh fruits and vegetables — let alone affordable organic options — are few and far between. These wide swaths of community, heavy with liquor stores but void of many full-service grocery options, are commonly identified as “food deserts.” Although Auset had researched and discussed the concept while studying sociology and public relations at Washington, D.C.’s, Howard University, she experienced it firsthand while living in Inglewood last year and trying to maintain her vegan diet.
“I would spend two hours on the bus to get fresh food anytime I needed groceries,” she says. “Until you’re living in that situation, you won’t understand what a food desert is.”
Auset didn't have a car, and within walking distance of her home there were only corner stores, fast food chains and other “predatory businesses” that aren’t concerned with how they affect the health of the communities they serve, she says. That’s why Auset — an L.A. native who spent her younger years in South L.A. and Inglewood but now lives in Culver City — decided to create Süprmarkt, not just as an in-demand business but as an attempt to address larger issues of social justice, such as how a lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables is degrading the health of minority communities.
“I think the easiest way to kill some people without being implicated for murder is through food. Leading causes of death are from preventable diseases specifically in communities of color,” she says. “When it comes to political discussion or race discussion or social justice discussion, a lot of times commerce doesn’t come up in that equation.”
One of the main hurdles to healthier eating is access, says Auset, which is why in addition to regular appearances in Leimert Park, and pop-ups at locations including the Crenshaw YMCA and Horace Mann Middle School in South L.A., Süprmarkt provides delivery services. These produce boxes start at $25 and include an assortment ripe for making salads and smoothies, as well as heartier meals. Each box typically contains some staple items, such as bananas, leafy greens and coconut (Auset’s favorite), as well as seasonal selections such as pineapple or avocado.
So far Süprmarkt has just 12 subscribers who either get boxes delivered or pick them up from Leimert Park on Sundays, but the company has sold more than 500 total cases of produce throughout its year of operation, Auset says. With an emphasis on affordability, Süprmarkt accepts EBT and considered its target demographic when calculating price tiers. The average individual receiving food stamps gets a little less than $200 per month, Auset says, and roughly divided by four that’s $50 per week. With a Süprmarkt produce box priced at $25, she figures people can spend half of their budget per month on fresh fruits and vegetables and use the other portion to purchase other healthy staples, such as grains.
Auset aims to minimize what can be the daunting financial aspects of healthy eating.
“There’s some times when I go to get an organic pineapple and it’s like, eight bucks,” she says. “Experiences like that are really discouraging for anyone in the process of trying to eat fresh food.”
Food is the largest source of waste in California; in the United States as a whole, an estimated 60 million tons of produce is thrown out each year. One large contributor to this refuse is the mass of fruit and veggies that get discarded because they’re cosmetically damaged — even though they’re perfectly safe and healthy to eat. Auset keeps costs down by buying wholesale and combining top-shelf produce with these imperfect items that commercial operations like grocery stores won’t buy. A win-win, as Süprmarkt gets cut rates while also helping to reduce food waste, Auset says.
“[I want to] move all the food that people don’t know what to do with into the hands of people who need it,” she says.
Auset eats a peach from her own supply. On this particular day she's also selling strawberries, apples, pineapples and melons, among other things.
People like customer Deondre Dunn, who’s 22 years old and lives in South L.A. He first heard about Süprmarkt through someone he follows on Instagram, and loved the idea of supporting an organic grocery business owned by a black woman, he says. Dunn’s also vegan, so on-demand produce is a plus. He signed up for the monthly Süprmarkt subscription and picked up his first produce box last week. Highlights of the haul were red potatoes and a whole coconut — complete with the fresh liquid contained inside, he says.
“That was the first time I had it straight from the coconut," Dunn says.
The produce delivery model — and even the use of "ugly" fruits and vegetables that are rejected by most commercial outlets — is not a new concept. In Los Angeles alone there’s more than a handful of food collective and delivery options, ranging from basic fruit and vegetable boxes provided by CSAs, to a company called Out of the Box that provides a “culinary inspirations box,” which contains all items needed to make a full vegan meal. But Suprmarkt is a locally focused, grassroots incarnation of this business model, and instead of marketing to upper-middle-class working professionals who may be too busy to shop, Süprmarkt is trying to provide a basic, much-needed service from someone who understands the struggle.
“Most people don’t know what it’s like ... to grow up your entire life and never buy groceries from someone who looks like you,” she says.
South L.A.’s uphill battle to attract healthy restaurants and full-service markets is long-standing and riddled with disappointment. In 2010, the Trader Joes-esque supermarket chain Fresh & Easy opened at Central Avenue and Adams Boulevard to much initial fanfare, but after just five years, it was shut down as part of a massive wave of closures throughout Southern California. Then in 2015, L.A. City Council sold two acres of land for $1 (yes, a single dollar) and gave grocery chain Numero Uno $750,000 in funds to improve the location, as incentive for it to open up shop on 94th and Broadway. Just a few months after the deal was finalized, however, the market backed out of the deal.
While Süprmarkt is a ways off from eradicating food deserts in South L.A., Auset’s using her community ties and focusing on developing brand partnerships to expand reach. As of now, her “employees” are all volunteers and Süprmarkt is pushing hard on social media (it has more than 4,500 Instagram followers) as well as in media appearances, such as a video profile by PopSugar that received hundreds of thousands of views.
For the customers Süprmarkt does serve – such as a local mom who goes through an entire produce box in one day trying to feed her five children – Auset hopes her service helps.
“If you’re empowered enough to change your diet, then you’re empowered enough to change other things,” she says. “If we don’t do anything else, we should change the way that we eat.”
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