LA Compost Breaks through Concrete Jungle to Connect People with Soil

For LA Compost, responsible food use and consumption doesn’t end with farm-to-table practices. The Los Angeles-based non-profit organization supports maintaining the total loop within the story of food, which largely includes compost.

“Healthy soil translates into healthy food, and healthy food leads to healthy people. Composting is just as valuable as any of the other processes,” says Michael Martinez, the Executive Director of LA Compost.

In early 2013, Martinez and other founding members started LA Compost as a food waste diversion service, transporting organic waste from four different cities to composting centers by bike.

“We had a goal of reconnecting people with their food,” Martinez says. “We started composting scraps, coffee grounds, and organics from businesses, restaurants, and residents locally.”

Within five months, more than 15 riders had diverted 30,000 pounds of organic materials from landfills for composting, according to the organization’s website. However, the size and scope of Los Angeles required a more streamlined and centralized approach than the bike collections. So, in 2014, the organization began setting up composting “hubs” around Los Angeles County for people within neighboring communities to use.

Martinez explains that at the hubs, “members of the community come, weigh their scraps, record and enter the information, and place and cover the scraps in the compost pile. Each month, interns or volunteers turn the piles or retrieve the compost that is ready for use by the community.”

Currently, the organization has eight hubs in various locations across the county, including schools, museums, and community gardens.

The hubs also serve as platforms for workshops and workday events to help educate community members, especially children, about the basics of composting either at home or in a community. This educational component is a priority for LA Compost and was the catalyst for the initial idea after Martinez saw how disconnected his fifth-grade students were from food at the school where he taught in Miami.

“We started a school garden, and it was incredible the transformation that took place,” says Martinez. “The kids were blown away by seeing food coming from the ground for the first time and appreciated the whole cycle of seeing it go from seed to harvest. They were proud of being part of something larger than themselves.”

Although inspired by this experience, Martinez wanted to focus on soil when he returned home to Los Angeles.

“We wanted to get people talking about the importance of not wasting food and seeing it as a valuable resource that can help get food to those who actually need it,” Martinez says. “There was little conversation as far as where food goes after the table and kitchen experience, and compost was kind of the great equalizer or missing puzzle piece in the conversation.”

The conversation about composting is picking up, and policymakers are becoming one of the voices. In 2014, state lawmakers passed AB1826, a bill that requires businesses and multiple-family residential properties creating 4 cubic feet or more of organic waste to arrange for recycling services. Although this law will benefit LA Compost down the road, as the amount requirements continue to reduce, there is currently no infrastructure in LA County to process these materials on a large scale, according to Martinez.

“Currently, our approach is more of a local decentralized model,” says Martinez. “We do see ourselves being one of those solutions for businesses and restaurants to become compliant with these laws in the future.”

Martinez says that other restrictions locally and at the state level regulate how much you can compost onsite and transport to other locations, which makes things a bit difficult. However, he feels positive that these barriers will not stop the momentum LA Compost has built over the last few years.

“The laws are changing and becoming a bit more flexible to allow organizations like ours to actually function. They [policymakers] are going to have to start looking at alternative solutions to the infrastructure in place at the moment,” says Martinez. “I feel like our hubs will be part of the solution going forward. The need and demand are there, and we’re working our best to meet them.”

LA Compost is looking to open 10 new hubs in Los Angeles County in 2017 and will continue to provide educational workshops at hub locations and at supporting business locations.

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