Community Composting 101: Don't Let Your Food Waste Go To Waste
When Hevelynn Nealy invites people to her community garden, she makes an odd request — she asks them to bring their trash. At the entrance to Serenity Garden, tucked behind the parking lot of Mt. Sinai Church in South Pomona, a sign asks visitors to toss their food scraps into a hole surrounded by a raised garden bed. The scraps will mix with water and fallen leaves from a nearby Tropical Ash tree and eventually they'll decompose to feed the strawberry and blueberry plants growing around them.
Nealy, 38, discovered this "keyhole garden" technique in 2014 during an Afrocentric educational tour of Egypt.
"What I was so keen on is that it goes full cycle. I could literally pick the fruit, eat what was good for me and what wasn't, like peelings and whatnot, I could put into this hole and it would give me more," she says.
Food scraps are usually composted in standalone piles or bins, then added to garden beds after they've decomposed. In keyhole composting, which is common in hot, dry climates, it all happens in a single place. It's one of several composting methods Nealy uses at Serenity Garden, which she founded in 2019 as a community space and the outdoor classroom for her tutoring business, Greener STEMS.
Years before, she had developed severe carpal tunnel syndrome and decided to quit her mortgage financing job. She wanted to spend more time outside, taking care of her body the way she takes care of her plants. These days, when Nealy isn't teaching clients about gardening or repurposing waste in between math and reading lessons, she's combing through tubs of dirt looking for worm poop — and she couldn't be happier.
Making composting more accessible to her South Pomona neighbors is part of Nealy's mission. She is part of a loose but growing movement of gardeners, environmental activists and community leaders who want to make composting part of our daily lives, whether we live in expensive, one-bedroom apartments or suburban ranch homes. Community composting is one crucial way to do that.
Community composting hubs, like community gardens, are shared endeavors. They give residents of a neighborhood a place where they can drop off their food scraps so urban farmers, gardeners and local parks can use them. People who want to get more involved can learn to compost on their own or contribute to local composting efforts by volunteering to maintain compost piles. The goal is to reduce food waste, create nutrient-rich soil and connect people to their produce. It's also a hyperlocal way to combat climate change.
Composting is nature's way of recycling plant waste to nourish the growth of new plants. It requires four simple elements:
- green matter (food scraps or grass trimmings)
- brown matter (wood chips or dried leaves)
Together, they create the ideal environment for microorganisms to thrive so they can break down food scraps and mulch into rich, dark soil.
It's not as easy as dumping all your scraps into a bin, as anyone who has tried to build a compost pile in their backyard will tell you. Compost piles require maintenance.
That's where community composters come in. They teach their neighbors how to maintain shared compost piles, which need to be watered every couple of days and turned with a pitchfork anywhere from once a week to every few weeks.
Many community composters are proponents of hot compost. These piles are anywhere from 3' to 20' long and get to 130 to 160 °F.
"A lot of composters tell people that you can't compost meat and dairy, but that's just flat-out wrong," says Elinor Crescenzi, an environmental justice organizer and board member of the California Alliance for Community Composting. "It is true that those ingredients could attract pests and create odors if you just throw your food scraps on the top of your pile."
If the greens and browns are layered effectively, the pile will get hot enough to kill the pathogens in meat and dairy. The process is literally cooking the compost.
Worm composting is another popular method among community composters. It works well for smaller-scale composting, the kind you can do on your balcony.
Worms are kept in a plastic or wooden bin with food scraps and "brown" matter (usually shredded paper or ground coconut husks, known as coconut coir). The worms eat the food scraps and poop them out to create castings. You can sprinkle those castings into your garden beds or steep them in water to make a compost tea for your plants.
Nealy maintains several 2' by 3' Tupperware containers filled with worms (her "babies") in a shed at Serenity Garden. Although the worms can't consume things like citrus or animal byproducts, it's her favorite form of composting because it helps the kids she tutors get excited about the process.
It's also the best type of compost for plants. "Worm castings are the ultimate gold standard of compost," Crescenzi says.
Green Spaces In Urban Settings
For the past year, Drew Felix, 30, has spent five to six hours every Sunday afternoon, pedaling a bike trailer loaded with hundreds of pounds of garbage around Pomona. No, he's not a food scrap hoarder. He's part of Food Cycle Collective, a volunteer-run group that collects food waste from households and businesses, then delivers it to urban farms.
"If you would have told me a year and a half ago, 'You're going to be composting,' I would have said, 'Probably not,'" Felix says.
In the summer of 2020, he was invited to join one of the group's compost bike rides. Felix, who grew up in apartments and had never had his own garden, was excited by the concept.
"I like the cycle of how you're taking stuff that most people perceive as waste, and it's now becoming nutrients for food that we can eat again," Felix says.
On a scorching July afternoon, he loads up his bike trailer with coconut coir from Microgreen Mama (a small business that sells flats of herb and seed sprouts at farmers' markets), buckets of coffee grounds from Mi Cafecito Coffee, tubs of unsold green beans and brussels sprouts from farmers' market vendors and discarded food from home kitchens. It probably weighs 600 pounds.
He once tried to haul 950 pounds of scraps with his bike trailer but that led to a bent seat post. "That's what we call a bad f*ing idea," Felix says as he pulls into an alley to snag a bucket of scraps from someone's back stoop.
Most people drop their kitchen scraps at a booth at the Saturday Pomona farmer's market. Food Cycle Collective also makes house calls to older residents or people who are home-bound.
Volunteer Craig Sheldon, 29, a chemistry PhD student at UC Riverside who joins the ride most weeks to help out, tears open bags of slimy bananas and moldy bread from the bucket in the alley.
"We have to remind them to take it out of the plastic," Felix says.
It's in the mid-90s when Felix, Sheldon and new volunteer Daniel Hernandez, 38, reach Buena Vista Community Garden. Ellie O'Bosky, 26, one of the founders of Food Cycle Collective, arrives in a van filled with more scraps. The garden's rows are bursting with squash, corn, sunflowers, kale and strawberries.
The community garden was built in 2020 on a half-acre plot of land in South Pomona thanks to a $50,000 grant from California's environmental protection agency. It is maintained by volunteers from Food Cycle Collective and other local groups. Anyone in the neighborhood can harvest the food for free.
In August of this year, Felix's volunteer work with Food Cycle Collective became a part-time job. In the fall, he'll start doing outreach for the Buena Vista garden, knocking on doors in South Pomona to explain to the mostly Spanish-speaking residents that they can pick up food for free.
After Felix and the other Food Cycle Collective members spray themselves with a hose to cool off, they get to work building a hot compost pile.
First, they lay down wood chips donated by local arborists. Next, they add slimy heaps of cucumbers, tomatoes, avocado rinds and other produce scraps. Large items like melons or pineapples get chopped up to avoid anaerobic pockets in the pile (places where oxygen can't reach). Then, they sprinkle the coconut coir and coffee grounds on top. They add aged goat manure, donated by Amy's Farm in Ontario. Finally, they cover the 4-foot-high mound with more wood chips.
"Ellie, is it shit first or wood first?" Sheldon calls as he maneuvers a wheelbarrow toward piles of manure and mulch.
"Shit," O'Bosky says.
Volunteers water the piles two to three times per week. The piles will sit for three to four weeks before they are turned over, or pitchforked, into a new pile. After two turns, the piles will have shrunk by half and the compost will be ready to be layered into the garden's vegetable beds.
The nutrient-rich soil makes the crops grow thicker and keeps pests away. Healthy soil that's fed by compost also retains more water and draws carbon out of the atmosphere. More than that, shared composting helps foster a sense of community and makes people more conscious about the value of food.
"When you compost at this level, you get a community garden," O'Bosky says. "You get a green space in an urban jungle."
Fighting Climate Change With Compost
Composting advocates have spent years sounding the alarm about the environmental damage wreaked by food waste. State and local officials are finally starting to pay attention.
Californians throw out nearly 6 million tons of food waste a year, according to CalRecycle, the state's recycling agency. That discarded food makes up 18% of the waste in our landfills. This organic waste emits the super-pollutant methane, a greenhouse gas that is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
By Jan. 1, 2022, every city and county in California will be required to have an organic waste pick-up program, under a 2016 state law, SB 1383. That waste must either be composted or processed in an anaerobic digester to create biofuel. SB1383 also requires the state to divert 50% of organic waste from landfills by the end of 2020 and 75% by the end of 2025.
It is unlikely California will meet its 2020 benchmark, says Lance Klug, a spokesperson for CalRecycle. The agency is still calculating annual stats. But he says the agency has given out $140 million in grants and loans to support large-scale composting infrastructure to help cities and counties keep organic waste out of landfills.
While the statewide push to require composting is a good start, community composters say these efforts present new challenges. According to Crescenzi, the environmental justice activist, most of the organic waste that cities and counties collect (i.e. the contents of your green bin) gets trucked to large municipal facilities, far from where the compost is collected.
Community composters can't process all the food waste Californians throw out, but they serve a pivotal role in educating people on the local level — addressing the problem of food waste at its root. That's why they're pushing for a share of the state funds that are going to composting.
In 2020, CalRecycle awarded a $1.5 million grant to the California Alliance for Community Composting to support the development of 120 new community composting hubs across the state, nearly half of which are in the Los Angeles area. And Gov. Gavin Newsom's 2021-2022 budget allocates $5 million for community composting.
"Communities of privilege and urban communities are able to export their waste and the impacts of that waste to other communities, which tend to be more rural communities, less educated communities, less literate communities and communities that have experienced many different forms of structural oppression," Crescenzi says. "Community composting is the opposite of NIMBY, not in my backyard. It's sort of like only in my backyard. Let me take responsibility for that, in my backyard, in my community."
The trick will be gathering enough people and securing funding so these operations have a broader impact.
Can Community Composting Scale Up?
Although community composting is starting to gain traction, some well-established groups have already found ways to make it scalable and even profitable.
LA Compost, which was founded in 2013 by fifth grade teacher Michael Martinez, collected 740,000 pounds of food waste last year. In 2014, the organization shifted from a pick-up to a drop-off model. It now oversees 34 collection sites in the greater L.A. area.
Some locations compost what they produce on-site, like cafeteria scraps composted for a school garden. Other sites accept food scraps from locals, which then get composted in long piles, known as windrows, at Debs Park and Griffith Park. Some of that compost stays in the parks while the rest is given to Angelenos or smaller community gardens.
Mayor Eric Garcetti's 2019 Green New Deal called for food scrap drop-off programs at all city farmer's markets by 2021, part of a partnership with LA Compost. Although that goal has not yet been met, a representative from the city's sanitation department said it plans to establish collections at five farmer's markets by May 2022.
"A school garden or a church or a library might not seem significant but when you start to have a hundred of those, or a few hundred of those, you start to see the collective impact they have," Martinez says.
Meanwhile, CompostableLA, a small business founded in 2019, offers a convenient way for busy people to get involved in composting. Many Angelenos work long days in the film industry or gig economy and don't have time to drop off a bucket of scraps at a composting location, says Monique Figueiredo, the company's founder. For $30 to $45 a month, CompostableLA will pick up scraps from your home every other week. The company, which currently serves the San Fernando Valley, the Eastside, Central L.A. and the Westside, collects about 5,000 lbs of scraps per week.
Composting has also found its way into the gig economy. San Diego nonprofit Food2Soil, founded in 2015, bills itself as the "Airbnb of composting." It connects people who want to keep their scraps out of the landfill with local "soil farmers" who can earn extra income by maintaining compost piles in their homes or community gardens.
People can pay $15 a month to drop off their food scraps, and soil farmers earn $100 to $300 a month by composting it. Plus, they get to keep or sell all the soil they create.
Alyssa Brodsky, who joined Food2Soil as an intern in 2019 and is now its web builder, used the extra income and soil she earned to launch her own farm, Ranchito Milkyway, with her boyfriend, Christian Frutos, in August 2021.
Whether they are a nonprofit, a small business or a volunteer group, community composters are all about sharing resources.
At a June 2021 training organized by the California Alliance for Community Composting, 75 composters spent a week at Amy's Farm in Ontario. There, Hevelynn Nealy met Kourtnii Brown, the founder of Oakland's Common Compost. Inspired by Brown's large-scale worm composting demo, Nealy realized she could use this system to turn more food waste into soil, and Serenity Garden could have a more significant impact.
"I see compost as a great demonstration of how everything on the planet has a function," Nealy says. "It's just a matter of us taking the responsibility to direct that energy where we see it should best be focused."
Where You Can Crop Off Food Scraps
Atwater Village Farmers’ Market
3528 Larga Ave., Glendale
Sundays, 9 a.m. - 2 p.m.
Downtown Long Beach Farmers’ Market
Promenade North between 3rd and 5th streets, Long Beach
Fridays, 11 a.m. - 1 p.m.
Elysian Valley Community Garden
1816 Blake Ave., Northeast L.A.
Sundays, 10 a.m. - 2 p.m.
Long Beach Community Compost
2714 California Ave., Long Beach
Fridays, 8 a.m. - 9:30 a.m.
Pomona Community Farmers’ Market
Garey Avenue and Pearl Street, Pomona
Saturdays, 9 a.m. - 1 p.m.
- Cottonwood Urban Farm, Panorama City
- Grow Good Farm, Bell
- Fremont High School, South L.A.
- SOW Collective Backyard Farm, Arleta
Volunteer With Community Composting
- Amy’s Farm, Ontario
- Akoma Unity, San Bernardino
- Audubon Center at Debs Park, Northeast L.A.
- Buena Vista Community Garden, Pomona
- Carver Middle School, South L.A.
- Chino Community Garden, Chino
- CRECE Urban Farming Co-op, Santa Ana
- East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, Commerce
- Emerson Middle School Garden, Pomona
- Food Cycle Collective, Pomona
- Full Circle Compost, Topanga
- Garcia Center for the Arts, San Bernardino
- Garden of the Cosmic Christ, Ontario
- Huerta del Valle, Ontario/Jurupa Valley/San Bernardino/Riverside
- Long Beach Fresh, Long Beach
- Lopez Urban Farm, Pomona
- Puro Plants, Montebello
- Root 66 Community Garden, Rancho Cucamonga
- Serenity Garden, Pomona
- Sisters We Muscoy Community Garden, San Bernardino
- Tzu Chi Life Science Garden, San Dimas/Walnut
- Uncommon Good, Pomona
- Urban Mission, Pomona