The Woman Bringing 'Produce To The People' In South LA Wants To Open A Full Time Food Oasis
In the corner of the Underground Museum in Arlington Heights on a rainy Sunday, four people are clustered over a surprisingly large sweet potato. Technically, it's a jumbo yam, Olympia Auset explains.
Moments before the exchange, she was packing the nine-inch yam, along with a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables, into a large, open cardboard box. Before that, it was part of a regular produce haul she receives from the South Central Farmers' Cooperative and Better Life Organics. (Whatever she can't find locally, she buys from out of state.) She sells all of that at SÜPRMARKT, a Los Angeles pop-up stand and delivery service for organic produce. The concept was born of her frustration with the lack of healthy food options in South L.A. Now in its third year, her business has sold more than 25,000 pounds of fresh produce.
As Auset hands over a box filled with kale, cabbage, zucchini and beets to a customer, she slips in an appeal for Keep Slauson Fresh, her campaign to turn her mobile operation into a brick-and-mortar health food store. It's an ambitious goal sparked by two losses in her neighborhood.
1.3 Million People, 60 Grocery Stores
"There always was sort of this notion that if you want anything nice, you had to leave the neighborhood," Auset says of growing up in South L.A. It wasn't until she returned home after college, where she had become a vegan, that she noticed how hard it was to find foods that fit her diet.
"I would be on the bus, like, two hours every time I needed to get fresh food," she says. When she tried to convince friends and family to eat healthier, "One of the things I would run into is, 'It's too expensive.'"
The problem isn't simply anecdotal. Auset cites a 2010 study that found South L.A. had only 60 full-service grocery stores for the area's 1.3 million residents. The same study found the rate of obesity in South L.A. is more than triple the rate in West L.A.
"There's a high concentration of unhealthy food options in communities like South L.A., with liquor stores, fast food restaurants and convenience stores," says Alba Velasquez, a program director for the Los Angeles Food Policy Council.
Politicians, researchers and community activists have spent years trying to fix these issues, often referring to the neighborhood as a "food desert." Most famously, the L.A. City Council banned new standalone fast food restaurants from opening in the area in 2008.
"It was among the first policy attempts to use regulation, zoning [and] environment to affect obesity," says Roland Sturm of the RAND Corporation. He studied the neighborhood before and after the ban and concluded that within a five-year time frame, "There was no measurable impact."
"Social norms did not change. Trends in purchasing/consumption continued. Fast-food consumption and obesity rates continued to increase in all areas of L.A. from 2007 to 2011/2012, and the increase was greatest in the areas affected by the fast-food restrictions," Sturm says.
In the years since, both the local government and advocacy organizations have tried other approaches. They've offered tax incentives to property owners who convert unused land into agricultural space. They've sponsored an initiative that subsidizes upgrades for stores and helps store owners sell healthier foods.
"Our program looks into uplifting existing corner stores owners in these communities," Velasquez says. "When we talk about limited access to healthy food options, we're also talking about the need to create new cultures [and] norms around healthy lifestyles and not see that as a privilege."
So where do you go to find healthy food in South Los Angeles?
"Around here? Not too much," says Elijah, a twenty-something resident of the neighborhood.
I'd stopped him on Slauson Avenue in front of the building that, for decades, had been Mr. Wisdom Specialty Health Food Store. It closed in early 2019. Elijah had never heard of it.
The unassuming white building would be easy to miss, save for a large sign with the store's name. On a Monday morning, most people passing the building expressed the same unfamiliarity as Elijah. The only people who knew about the place were employees of neighboring businesses, who remembered it as a "great lunch spot." Online, a series of four and five-star reviews praise the place, revealing a dedicated fanbase and, thanks to a 2008 feature on Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, a brief brush with fame.
"Any time I was in that area, I would stop by. Even if I wasn't hungry, I would get a veggie plate," says Kyle Johnson aka Chef Kyle, who hosts healthy cooking demos in Long Beach and Compton. Johnson and Auset found each other on Instagram, bonding over their shared vegan lifestyle and entrepreneurial aspirations. Today, he helps Auset with SÜPRMARKT, offering recipe ideas to customers as they pick up their boxes.
"[Mr. Wisdom] was one of the only places you could get a veggie burger or wheatgrass shot or anything healthy," Auset says.
When Johnson told her the store had gone under, she made him take her there to see it with her own eyes. She was devastated by the loss.
"It was like, we can't let this happen and we can't just let this get flipped," Auset says. "This needs to stay as a landmark in the community. The biggest takeaway for me was, 'Olympia, you don't get to just think about having a store one day. You don't get to just think about what you want to do. You actually have to do it.'"
Keeping Slauson Fresh
Auset is standing under a string of lights in the garden of the Underground Museum, telling a few dozen supporters about the day Nipsey Hussle was fatally shot. She had been hosting a SÜPRMARKT pop-up walking distance from the shooting. When she heard what happened, she says she fell to the ground.
"He had founded a coworking space. He had property. He was building things. And he didn't leave. He was one of the only people who didn't leave us when he became successful," Auset says of the Grammy-nominated South L.A. native, who famously invested in his neighborhood.
Now, she hopes to follow his lead.
Displayed on a big screen behind her, the Keep Slauson Fresh IndieGoGo campaign went live in late May. Auset aims to raise $111,000 to purchase Mr. Wisdom's former shop, which is a few blocks from Hussle's The Marathon Clothing boutique. She plans to preserve the space as a health food store while adding WiFi, art and areas for patrons to socialize.
"There's going to be delicious prepared food, produce, everything we dream of, growing up in these communities," she tells the crowd.
Auset says she has reached out to the new owners of the space, as well as Mr. Wisdom himself, who is a real person. (Mr. Wisdom did not respond to LAist's request for comment.) She recently made contact with the owner and says that when more funds are raised, she'll start negotiations with them. In the meantime, she has moved forward with a launch video and a social media campaign. In three weeks, she has raised more than $30,000. As the July 5th deadline for the campaign approaches, she remains steadfast in her mission.
"I'm very, very, very committed to being in this space," Auset says. "If this is a food desert, I just see it being an oasis."