The Department of Agriculture estimates that 30 to 40 percent of the food supply in the United States is wasted, making the scraps from our tables and fridges the “single-largest component going into municipal landfills.” At the same time, nearly 1 in 8 Americans—nearly 40 million people—faced food insecurity in 2017.
A number of the food insecure live in “food deserts,” neighborhoods where easy access to healthful, affordable food is limited, but unhealthy—and cheap—fast food is plentiful and has been a staple for generations. One under-30 entrepreneur, Olympia Auset, aims to change the status quo in her South Los Angeles community with her startup Süprmarkt.
“Because L.A. is kind of the health capital of the country, people don’t even know that these [other] parts of L.A. exist,” she explains. “Basically, anywhere where there are more European residents, you can’t walk down the street without running into at least three grocery stores. But when you’re in a place like South L.A., you’re literally having to drive to a grocery store that probably has really crappy produce even if it’s the same [chain].”
Driving for miles just to secure quality groceries is a huge burden for people who don’t have cars or a lot of money. So Auset brings more healthful options wherever they’re needed. “Every week, we pop up in a place where there’s not a lot of access to food and provide organic produce affordably,” she explains. “We also have a subscription service, which makes up for a good portion of the produce we provide.”
The subscription boxes ($26.50 per week or $104 per month) include fruits, vegetables, herbs, and dry goods, and the company’s one-for-one programs allows customers to sponsor subscriptions for others. Auset says about half of Süprmarkt’s goods are locally sourced from the South Central Farmers’ Cooperative. Items that don’t grow in the U.S. (bananas and mangoes, for example) come from an organic wholesaler in L.A.
Auset knows firsthand how difficult life can be without easy access to fresh food. A vegan since her freshman year of college, Auset was struck by the necessity of taking a bus for two hours to find a store with good produce. While attending Howard University in Washington, D.C., she worked on a community garden and became better informed about food production. When she moved back to L.A. following graduation, she decided to forgo a career in public relations to work on projects that “educate and empower people” about food.
Auset began working with a raw-food manufacturer and meeting with a small group of friends each week to watch documentaries and cook together. The first iteration of Süprmarkt came from those intimate events. In June 2016, a friend’s mom loaned the group of three $300 to host a larger dinner at her house and invite more people. The first public Süprmarkt was launched in Leimert Park that July.
“It was very scrappy,” Auset says. “We didn’t even own a table at the time. We just borrowed one and went out there and used what we had, which was maybe $60 of produce.” The initial response came in small waves, she says, but was very positive. The thing Auset hears most often from friends and customers is that they’re proud of the work she’s doing.
Word steadily spread about Süprmarkt. Auset advertised the event on social media and got a shoutout from a popular Instagram account called Vegan Food Share. She also contacted digital-media company Black Vegans Rock, which led to a feature about Süprmarkt that garnered even more attention from other people of color interested in healthful living, including former Olympian Seba Johnson—the youngest person to ski in the Winter Olympics and the first African-American Alpine skier.
“She went to Howard University like I did and has been vegan since she was born,” Auset says. “She came to the stand, saw what we were doing, and made a few suggestions—including that we apply to the Pollination Project.”
Pollination Project gives out daily microgrants ($1,000 a day) to grassroots causes centered in vegan and sustainable living. Auset applied, and Süprmarkt received a grant. She also applied for and won a $2,500 fiscal sponsorship from Co+opportunity, a cooperatively-owned grocery store in L.A. that she had been a member of for some time. Those early wins “blossomed” into other opportunities: Auset is now on the board of Co+op and reviews grants at the Pollination Project, “helping other people to kind of circle everything forward.”
That $3,500 in early funding was crucial to their start (“We were able to buy a fridge and run the entire first year off of that money,” Auset says) but there is much more work to do. Süprmarkt relies on a staff of four paid employees and 10 volunteers of “various levels of commitment.” The company now sells more than 200 pounds of produce each week (about 10 cases of food), and feedback has suggested that demand is growing.
Some subscribers share pictures of dishes they make with their Süprmarkt haul, emailing her directly or posting to social media. Other customers who are less familiar with the assorted herbs and greens in their boxes ask questions about how to use what they’ve received. In 2017, after Afropunk published an interview with Auset, orders started coming in from all over the country.
“People were reaching out to us and saying, ‘Thank you for this. Can you bring this to Alabama? Can you bring this to Chicago? Can you bring this here? Can you bring this there?’” she recalls. “That was really humbling, and it flew in the face of this general stereotype: Oh, the reason they don’t have anything good in their neighborhoods is because all they want to eat is junk food. It’s really not true.”
“We can’t ship produce [out of state],” says Auset. But that hasn’t stopped her dreams of expansion. “Because what we’re doing can be done at a really small scale, you don’t need a lot of money. But to do some of the bigger things that we want to do—make it sustainable and grow—it’s been a process of understanding that I have to stop thinking small,” she says.
One of her goals is to open a brick-and-mortar location to “provide the food that people deserve” all the time. Another is to expand into food deserts around the country. Last April, she launched Süprseed, a 501(c)3 affiliate organization that “provides educational programming and support meant to go along with providing the food.” The nonprofit will screen films and share action items with attendees who want to learn more about food, nutrition, and socioeconomic and political history in L.A.
“A lot of work has to be done in reversing palates, because your taste buds are based on what you’ve been eating your whole life,” Auset explains. “That’s why we have Süperseed—to make sure that we’re not just popping down and setting up produce and wondering why people don’t want it.”
Auset’s community-first approach seems to be working. She says it’s easy to get “tied to the mechanics” of running a startup but that certain “special, magical moments” have helped her see Süprmarkt’s impact. Once, a little boy running around Leimert Park came up to her stand, pointed at a banana, and asked what it was, so Auset gave him one to try. After seeing his positive response (“Why is this so good?”) his brother asked for a banana, too—which prompted their father to buy the rest.
Another time, a woman who missed the Süprmarkt’s hours of operation called Auset and asked what food was still available. “I told her what we had left and she actually came to my house and got groceries,” Auset recalls. “At that moment, it was this epiphany of, Oh my God. I’m actually a grocer! This is working.”