Olympia Auset and Martha Pincoffs talk food epiphanies, vegan burgers and the mysteries of the organic pineapple
By Margaret Williams
Photographs by Jessica Pages with assistance from Katie Leacroy
A few months back, Olympia Auset and Martha Pincoffs made their way through the Sustainable Food Center’s expansive East Austin garden. Weather-wise, it happened to be one of those manic spring days. As the women took their winter coats on and off, they began to talk food accessibility, quickly realizing their uncanny alignment with, and passion for, disrupting food systems that lead to food deserts. Defined by the USDA as “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods,” these produce desolate areas are often experienced only by their residents.
Auset, a millennial Los Angeleno, is a disarming mix of deliberation and joy, and as she talks about Süprmarkt, the affordable organic grocery she founded in 2016, one can’t help but feel hopeful. Her organization serves low-income communities in Los Angeles with its pop-up markets and subscription service and over the past three years has provided more than 25,000 pounds of 100% organic produce, nuts and seeds to South L.A. locals. She says the impetus for founding Süprmarkt was a mix of factors, but seeing family and friends fall prey to easily preventable diseases like diabetes, along with her own limited access to healthy foods, played a big role.
Pincoffs, a native Austinite and self-described connector of people, ideas and institutions, has a long list of accomplishments in the local food and farming movement. Her Hot Dang line of grain burgers was once available only at a local farmers market but is now stocked at grocery stores across the country. The mother of two is also the president of the Texas Center for Local Food and on the board of Austin’s Sustainable Food Center, whose mission is to create a sustainable and equitable food system in Central Texas. And she still manages to find time to cook! In fact, she founded the 30 at Home cooking challenge—and sticks with it every January. Lately, Pincoffs has been channeling her energies towards Waking Giants, where she and co-founder Sera Bonds provide actionable resources for those wanting to better understand social justice issues like immigration and public health. Happily, Pincoffs is the best kind of leader and activist, one who doesn’t take herself too seriously, as evidenced by Waking Giant’s tongue-in-cheek Keanu Reeves prayer candle being sold as part of its Holiday Survival Kit. Who says you can’t save the world and have a sense of humor? Certainly not either of these ladies.
Olympia Auset: This is an impressive garden.
Martha Pincoffs: I love the way it smells. How did you get into food? What made you start thinking about it?
OA: My food epiphany really started to happen my first year in college. I was going to these dialogue sessions, and we would talk about the banking system, why there are wars, the pharmaceutical industry. And I started to understand how important food is, how it’s directly linked to our human potential and how it can be a control mechanism. I went vegan.
I also learned about the work of Will Allen, who’s growing 1 million pounds of food on 3 acres year-round in Milwaukee in the freezing cold. I started working with a community garden near me, Common Good City Farm. When I graduated, I knew I wanted to build a food infrastructure. I was living on the border of Inglewood in L.A., and I would be on the bus two hours every time I needed produce. When you make a commitment to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, it becomes clear that there’s none around.
I was educating my friends about eating healthy, but their biggest pushback was like, “Oh, it’s too expensive.” I was having friends, family members, pass away from preventable diseases. I was working with raw-food manufacturers, and I would see where the produce came from. It was like, “Oh, it doesn’t have to be this expensive.” It was a culmination of things.
MP: I started a vegetarian burger company years ago. The whole line’s vegan now. I worked through all of the grocery stores and saw the margin that Whole Foods charges against the margin that H-E-B charges against the margin that delivery-to-door charges. It fascinated me to watch the economics of it play out. OK, so Süprmarkt? It’s a farmers market?
OA: It’s a pop-up grocery service. Every Sunday, we do a location where there’s limited access to food. We sell produce, nuts, dates, and we keep everything affordable. We also have a subscription service. It’s designed around the average EBT [Electronic Benefits Transfer] for a single person. The idea is, you can potentially spend half of your EBT and have produce in your fridge every week. I get frustrated at the store. If you want organic pineapple, it’s like eight bucks.
The model has been built out to expand the popularity of organic foods, and they’re gonna try to get as much money as they can. But also sometimes we feel entitled to these foods from across the planet.
MP: Right, and they travel. I’ve always thought there was a better way, and one of the things that I really love that we have access to here is Double Dollar [a financial-matching program allowing benefit holders increased produce purchasing power] for fresh fruits and vegetables.
OA: OK. Oh, for California, it’s Market Match.
MP: It’s a good way to grow access. And the economics of it are in such nice alignment, because the money goes directly to the farmer.
OA: Yeah, 200 bucks a month for food in L.A. is not enough, really, especially if you’re gonna be eating fresh. With that amount, you’re eating just processed food, because that’s what you can afford. So being able to double your dollars—
MP: It’s a big deal. Policy has to change if we’re gonna change food, because the seed company’s now owned by the pill company. How did you start Süprmarkt?
OA: The first Süprmarkt was a large dinner in my friend’s mom’s house. She gave us $300 for the dinner, and we used $100 on food. The next month, we went out to a community park in our area. We didn’t even have a table. We just got some produce, and—it was like so rinky-dink. If you look at our first Instagram pictures, we were just out there. Do you still have the burger company?
MP: It’s not mine anymore, but it’s out in the world and growing. I heard they got into Walmart.
MP: Which is crazy. Then I ran a fermented-vegetable company, which was really cool, because I learned all about the healing powers of food.
I didn’t really pay attention to [food] until I turned 30, and then I started cooking, and it made me curious about “Where does this come from, and why does it matter, and how does it make my body feel, and how is the person treated that raised it?” It pulled the whole world of justice and creativity and care altogether for me.
Now I work on projects with companies, politicians and individuals to try and drive the change forward from that place where private, public and nonprofit meet so we can scale. Because solutions like yours need to scale.
OA: What is it like for you here?
MP: Austin has seven ZIP codes that don’t have grocery stores. One in five kids is on free and reduced lunch in our schools. It’s a great city in so many ways, but we have some real places we could do a whole lot better. That’s where I think business has a place to participate. I think that there are some really conscious companies that really sincerely wanna be good citizens in the world, and they can do more.
And then to meet people like you doing really radical stuff—the entire community is served by the work that you do.
This story is part of our series “Listening In,” where we pair SXSW speakers and artists and then happily eavesdrop on the exchange. Find the complete series at tribeza.com/listening-in.