Sara Southerland grew up in Fort Worth, Texas — a place that’s quite different from the Pacific Northwest.
“Most of my friends and people I knew in Texas had never seen a mountain, or really been in the woods,” she said. But as a kid, Southerland, now 33, would go with her family on backpacking trips in the mountains of Colorado. That’s where she was first inspired by the beauty nature. This would spark her passion for environmentalism while attending the University of North Texas, Denton.
“Right at the end of my college career I got really passionate about seeing what was really possible in environmental and social change,” she said.
That passion eventually brought her to Washington, where she worked as an educator for AmeriCorps in Aberdeen.
Eventually she realized that food and farming were her true passions.
“I just kind of got inspired and realized I wanted to work with sustainable agriculture,” she said.
It was her exploration of her own health journey that led to her passion for food.
“Going through college and eating fast food and drinking,” she said. “Getting out of school [I began] realizing that it could be better than that.”
At first, she thought her passion for healthy food would lead her to become a farmer. But she was in between jobs, waiting tables, when she found the job opening in the food and farming program at Sustainable Connections.
“I actually cried when I first saw the job description,” she said. “It was just kind of a perfect fit for me.”
The program helps connect people with the food they eat, starting at the farm, going through a grocery store or restaurant and ending up on the plate. Since starting at Sustainable Connections, she has become director of that program.
She helped launch the Eat Local First campaign. Over the past eight years, that campaign has grown to include more than 100 participating businesses.
“Restaurants and grocery stores that weren’t previously buying local food are now having that as a part of their business models,” she said.
As part of her exploration of healthy food, she helped launch a successful small business.
In 2014 she helped start the Electric Beet Juice Co. with co-founder Kara Marklin. She is no longer involved with the company, but the experience taught her even more about food, health and small businesses.
“It was a really great experience, learning what it was like running a business,” she said.
Now she has a new project. She has been taking online courses at the Institute for Integrated Nutrition, and plans to start a health coaching business.
“I’m excited about getting my fingers back in the pie as a business owner,” she said.
Going back to school was an extra burden on her already tight work schedule, but she is finding a way to fit it all in.
“Nights and weekends … that’s what they’re for,” she said. “I have a really high capacity for work. I’ve always been the type of person that pushes myself to the limits.”
But finding and respecting those limits is something she also says is important.
Many people also know her from the days when she used to sing and dance and perform lounge music in a band around town.
“People keep asking me when I’m going to perform again,” she said. “But I’ve got too much going on right now.”
She said that over the years, she has become more aware of her limits, on her time and energy.
“In the past, my goal was to be a renaissance woman,” she said. She’s come to an important realization, however.
“I can have everything I want in my life, but just not at once.”
This is part of the BBJ’s coverage of our annual Top 7 Under 40 Awards. Click here to learn more about the rest of the winners.
Edit: More quotes and context have been added to this article since publication.