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PLANT-BASED DIET: The Power of Produce

Written by Taylor Roberts

Sweet Wheel Farms Santa Barbara
Photo by Jacqueline Pilar

Food fuels our body to power us through our daily lives from walks on Butterfly Beach to cocktails with friends. Choosing the highest quality sustenance is crucial to keeping our bodies functioning efficiently and effectively. Plant-based diets composed of whole, fresh foods have long taken the cake for their ability to nourish and satisfy our systems. With the abundance of trendy diets that come and go and the constant circulation of both true and false information, it is important to understand that there is no perfect diet and finding what feels best for you is the only way to maximize your health. However, eating foods in their natural form ensures balanced, optimal nutrition that can be easily digested for health that radiates from the inside out. In order to recognize the value of the farm-to-table process, we begin at the source with local produce sold on the Sweet Wheels Farm and Flowers cart and then hear from a professional plant-based chef, Leslie Durso, to better understand how to turn homegrown into homemade.

If you have ever found yourself on Lillie Avenue in Summerland or Coast Village Road in Montecito, there is a good chance you have seen the Sweet Wheels Farm and Flowers carts. The owner and CEO Leslie Person Ryan has made it her mission to provide farm-fresh produce to the Summerland community, especially considering the town’s classification as a “food desert.” Leslie Person Ryan prioritizes both “farm education” and “cart education” among her employees, allowing them to share with customers not only recipe recommendations but firsthand knowledge of how the food is locally grown with sustainable farming practices. Sweet Wheels is known for their unique fruit and vegetable varieties, ranging from tropical pineapples to nutrient-packed micro-beans. While pineapple, mango, and passionfruit may surprise cart shoppers, Leslie Person Ryan began growing these fruits after learning of the immense pollution and malpractices of pineapple farming. As she shared with us, the farm-to-table process is deeply rooted in ethics and is often obscured by additives and GMOs.

Eating foods in their natural form ensures balanced, optimal nutrition that can be easily digested for health that radiates from the inside out.

Shopping in-season is the best method to avoid nutrient-depleted, chemically-treated foods. If you're seeing food that is out-of-season, it can likely be traced back to hothouses and long shipments. As a rule of thumb, it is recommended to eat what can be purchased at local stores, farmers' markets, and farm stands. For the months of January, February, and March, be sure to take home winter crops such as wheat, oats, citrus fruits, and even dried fruits.

The benefits of the organic, locally sourced produce from Sweet Wheel Farms exceed beyond health and also contribute to the community's livelihood—from the wallets of local farmers to the region’s soil fertility. To better join the farm-to-table movement, Leslie Person Ryan is compiling customized Community-Support Agriculture (CSA) boxes from the cart’s inventory, which is a perfect way to introduce a variety of produce to your kitchen.

Upon bringing your local, organic fruits and vegetables home, it can be intimidating to know where to start for new plant-based eaters. Chef Leslie Durso, a passionate vegan chef and educator, dedicates each day to debunking the misconceptions that healthy vegan diets lack flavor and convenience. As a Southern California native, Chef Durso has worked with numerous hotels and resorts to bring vegan food to all visitors, whether “vegcurious” or not. With a love for the California coast’s natural resources, including some of the best produce grown in the world, she has enjoyed working at Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara. Her most recent plant-based mission has taken her to Four Seasons Punta Mita, Mexico, where she curated the most vegan-friendly resort in the world with over 150 plant-based options. To better understand how to implement a plant-based diet into our lives, we asked Chef Durso a series of questions to guide and improve our health from the inside out.


What are the benefits of eating plant-based that speak to you the most?

There are three main reasons why people go vegan. The animals, the environment, and health. I am vegan for all of those reasons.

How would you advise someone as they begin switching to a plant-based diet?

Go at your own pace. This is not a race. Begin by incorporating more and more plants into your diet and shrinking the number of animal products until they are gone. Know that things like cheese contain casein, which is highly addictive so it will take time for your brain to stop craving it. Don’t give up!

What physical and mental changes can one expect after switching to a plant-based diet and upon eliminating animal products?

You can expect your body to detox out a lot. You can expect your energy level to go up. Your sex drive to increase. Your skin to look clearer. Your brain to function sharper. You’ll begin to feel what it’s like to drive a brand new Ferrari instead of a 20-year-old Honda.

As a renowned chef, you have plenty of experience in the kitchen. Often, people find the idea of cooking healthy and/or vegan food to be intimidating, especially when just starting. What are your tips for preparing whole, balanced meals that do not compromise flavor or convenience?

Start simple. Learn to cook your favorite meal. Learn the basics of sauce making. A good sauce can jazz up any meal!

What are your top pantry and kitchen staples that you always keep on hand?

  • An herb box—to grow your own fresh herbs.

  • Nutritional yeast—it’s delicious on everything and a great source of vitamin B12.

  • Raw almond and cashews to snack on and make non-dairy milk.

  • High-quality olive oil and vinegar—especially to make your own simple salad dressings. One of my favorite recipes is simply chopped garlic, oregano, whole grain mustard, red wine vinegar, and olive oil.

Sweet Wheel Farms Santa Barbara
Photo by Stephanie Day

What is your favorite “tool” in the kitchen?

My Vitamix. They are an investment and worth every penny.

What are your go-to weekly recipes?

I don’t have much regularity in my diet because I’m always developing something new, but people are always shocked by the amount of pasta I eat. I love it! I have it once or twice a week along with soups, salads, loaded potatoes, tacos, and more.

How does the quality of produce impact flavor and nutrition?

The quality of your produce is everything when it comes to flavor. This is why I do most of my shopping at the farmers’ market. It’s usually picked ripe, instead of most produce in a grocery store that is picked then ripened in a truck. I also love meeting the farmers and hearing what they are excited about growing.

What is your response when people are concerned with higher prices for local or organic shopping?

There is a saying that goes: “Pay the farmer now or the doctor later.” It’s pretty true. If you have the ability to buy organic, do it. If it’s a struggle for you financially, try to at least buy organic for anything you are going to eat the skin of or things that grow underground like potatoes, carrots, and garlic.

What are some benefits of specific foods that many people are not aware of?

All plants have some sort of super nutrient in them. Some of my favorites are:

  • Mushrooms—the only plant source of Vitamin D.

  • Quinoa—for its high amount of protein and anti-inflammatory qualities.

  • Oats—for their high amount of protein and calcium.

  • Baobab—one of the most nutrient-dense plants on earth with the most antioxidants, and packed with vitamin C, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, and fiber. (Perfect for smoothies!)

Could you share a few of your favorite tips to ease into a more healthy, plant-based lifestyle?

Food is not the only thing you should focus on when it comes to a healthy lifestyle. What you put on your skin is almost as important as what you are eating. When you put toxic chemicals on your skin in the form of lotions, makeup, and skincare, your body absorbs a great deal of those ingredients, potentially creating all sorts of issues. It is so important not just to look for vegan and cruelty-free products, but also ones that don’t contain harsh petrochemicals.

Sweet Wheel Farms Santa Barbara
Photo by Stephanie Day

Do you believe health starts in the kitchen rather than the gym?

I do. Working out is great for the mind and physique, but it’s all made so much easier when you feed your body the right nutrients to fuel you for your workout instead of draining you. I know so many people that eat terribly and spend hours in the gym working it off. Wouldn’t it be easier to simply love your body by feeding it the nutrients it needs to thrive?

What do you think is the biggest misconception about plant-based diets (and overall healthy eating)?

That healthy, vegan food cannot taste good. I thoroughly enjoy proving this wrong all the time.

How do you debunk the statement that plant-based eating can be “inconvenient”?

All you have to do is walk into a grocery store to see the overwhelming amount of plant-based foods available to know that it is far from inconvenient. It’s so easy. Plus there are over 20,000 edible plants on earth and only about 11 widely sourced animals.

What is your response to concerns of protein on a plant-based diet?

Protein is in so many non-animal foods. If you eat a wide variety of colorful plants you will get all of the nutrition you need, in fact, probably more than on a meat eating diet.

Among the many health trends, what are some that you anticipate becoming more popular?

Probiotics and gut health are going to be talked about even more than they are now.

Do you take or recommend any supplements?

I recommend taking a B12 supplement to anyone, not just people on a plant-based diet. It’s incredibly important to get and most people suffer from a lack of it. The rest of the vitamins and nutrients I need I like getting from real food instead of pills. I always recommend eating the rainbow. The most colorful foods contain the highest amount of necessary vitamins and minerals.


Now that we have learned where and how to incorporate more plant-based foods into our daily lives, it is important to remember that diets are quick fixes, while the switch to plant-based is a lifestyle change. In addition, it is a journey of learning what works best for you and will not happen overnight. Even the smallest changes like experimenting with Meatless Mondays, opting for plant-based milk over dairy, and purchasing produce from local farmers like Sweet Wheel Farms, will begin to prove the power of plants and radiate a garden glow.


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