Maryann Justman is not a woman who lets a simple thing like a fire get her down. Back in the 1980s, when she was cooking for the East West Center of Austin (the predecessor to Casa de Luz), the EWCA building burned down. Justman, unfazed, simply started cooking her healthy food for people in her own Clarksville home.
Justman’s partner, Eduardo “Wayo” Longoria, was an EWCA volunteer. Soon, Justman suggested to Longoria that they start a new macrobiotic food center. The pair checked out an abandoned meat packing plant on Toomey Rd., off Barton Springs, and soon transformed the dilapidated warehouse into a beautiful, peaceful community center: Casa de Luz.
If you aren’t familiar with the lush gardens and kinship feel of Casa de Luz, it’s a place that its regulars feel drawn to, often treating as a second home. It not only serves up Austin’s only 100 percent organic, vegan, gluten-free food made by nutritionally trained chefs, but is also a true community space. In spite of all the subsequent growth around it in the subsequent twenty years, Casa de Luz remains a quiet enclave where folks come to eat healthy and find a centered balance.
Tables are communally shared, and there is no menu. Instead, guests pay a set price and receive a token, which allows them to help themselves to soup and salad, while the day’s entrée is brought to their table. Rental space, events and a playground are all part of the center. As the website states, “The nourishment is shared as much as eaten.”
In addition to supporting healthy eating, the Casa de Luz mission is to offer a sacred space to share with the community. “The formula is a simple one,” Longoria says. “There is no one owner. There is righteous food being served, everyone gets the same meal, very much like home; and the tables are community. Indeed, there is a natural proclivity for community to happen at Casa de Luz.” The kitchen is completely open to the dining room, and all recipes are shared.
There is also an active volunteer program, and the center is also home to Parkside Community School, a Montessori school with an enrollment of more than 130 students from ages three to 12. The entire campus enjoys a symbiotic relationship with the park land across Toomey Rd.; Parkside students use the park daily, as do the guests of Casa de Luz.
“We want to reconnect the world,” states Longoria. “We want to teach experientially that eating — in community — a plant-based diet that is 100 percent free of pesticides and unprocessed, will bring joy and freedom from disease. The industrial revolution, while bringing expediency and convenience, has destroyed community and health. The price has been high evidenced by the exponential rise in disease.”
Jefre Outlaw, a regular who eats at Casa de Luz four to six times a week, knows well the connection between healthy eating and disease. He began eating there right after he was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer in January 2005. "It was part of my regimen of combined therapy of western medicine and eastern medicine along with eating healthy in a desire to get well and rid myself of the disease. Today I eat much healthier overall."
Although Outlaw is not a vegan, he says that the vegan macrobiotic food is part of his diet and self care. "I just make healthy choices and try to make sure to eat high quality food when I do eat out. The food there is tasty and makes me feel good. I also find that I have a lot more energy when I eat well."
Longoria and his team have a rather grand long-term vision for Casa de Luz. Plans include creating a full spectrum village, designed to include smart living modalities such as car-free living and shared spaces, that will support wellbeing for all. There is also a Casa de Luz location in San Diego, and Longoria hopes the idea will catch on in other cities. He says his team is willing to share their model and even help train the cooks.
“We need for the feminine to become the prevalent force in humanity,” Longoria adds as his bit of philosophy. “The masculine has created industry to the point that we have lost our health and community and gained in wars and greed.”