Some Favorite Sites
Government/ Community Links
Foodies Eye A Citywide Soil Revolution
by Thomas MacMillan | Oct 16, 2012 11:03 am
Posted to: Compost, Environment, Food
Now that the city has rolled out new municipal recycling bins, could curb-side compost pick-up be the next frontier?
A citywide composting system was one reverberating idea among dozens to come out of an inspirational “New Haven Food Summit,” an afternoon conference of cooks, gardeners, and food policy wonks at City Hall.
The event Friday marked the debut of the New Haven Food Action Plan, a document created by the New Haven Food Policy Council as a blueprint for a city with better access to healthful food, a strong local food economy, and more education and marketing to promote healthful food choices.
Read the plan here.
The summit was the first event in two days of food- and garden-themed events featuring Will Allen, a visiting recipient of a 2008 “genius grant” from the MacArthur foundation. Click here to read about a garden tour he took on Saturday.
Allen’s organization, Growing Power, has helped start farms and gardens in cities across the country. His first urban farm in Milwaukee is now a powerhouse of agricultural production featuring vermiculture, aquaculture, year-round crops, chickens, and goats. The key to it all, Allen stressed, is healthy soil. In a presentation to the Food Summit, he showed image after image of huge compost mounds, the key to producing crops in cities where the ground is often contaminated.
Much of the soil in New Haven is contaminated, said Rebecca Kline, the head of New Haven Farms, the local urban agriculture organization. She said the resultant need for compost is the biggest expense involved in starting and growing the gardens New Haven Farms has installed in vacant lots in the city.
Kline said she’s on the cusp of convening a group including people from Yale and the city Department of Public work to talk about how to create a city-wide composting system.
“I think we’d be interested in it,” said Rob Smuts, the city’s chief administrative officer. He said the first stage would be to get downtown restaurants on board, along with Yale, the hospitals, Gateway Community College, the Southern Connecticut State University, and the public schools. He said he’s spoken with Yale and the Town Green Specials Service District about it already.
While West Haven has a system for composting collected leaves and allowing residents to take the resulting soil, New Haven does not. New Haven trucks its leaves out of town to be composted elsewhere, Smuts said.
Kline mentioned the idea of a large, shared composting system during one of the conference’s brainstorming groups following Allen’s presentation. That and other ideas will be fleshed out by several new working groups that emerged from Friday’s event.
The Gospel Of Compost
The food summit opened aptly—with food. Eight local chefs set up at cooking stations in the atrium at City Hall Friday. Food Summit attendees pitched in and were guided through on-the-spot preparation of a massive communal meal, with dishes including sweet-potato sushi, black-eyed pea salad, and fresh pulled mozzarella with grilled vegetables.
Westville’s Mary Faulkner donned and apron and joined the SoNo bakery table to help make rustic open-faced tarts (pictured above). “I hope I never get called that,” she said.
At noon, the event moved down the hall into two adjoining meeting rooms, where people feasted on the fruits of their labors amid presentations about local efforts on food, cooking, and gardening. The culmination was a presentation by visiting genius Allen. Larger than life, he stood to address the crowded room in his trademark blue hoody.
Allen, a 63-year-old, 6-foot-7 former basketball player and son of South Carolina sharecroppers, is a pioneering urban farmer who has been spreading the gospel of eating healthy and growing food in inner cities across the country. He was in town thanks to the New Haven Land Trust—he spoke at the organization’s 30th anniversary dinner Friday night. And he was a guest on a citywide garden tour and garlic-planting—dubbed “The Big Stink”—on Saturday.
On Friday afternoon, Allen (pictured) earned a standing ovation from the over 100 people crammed into the City Hall meeting room for the Food Summit. People rose to their feet after he sped through 1,000 photographs charting his 20-year journey from Proctor and Gamble salesman to White-House-recognized urban farming visionary.
“We’re in a situation where we’re eating really bad food,” he said. People don’t have access to healthy food; they live in “food deserts.” The food that is available isn’t local.
The good news: “We do have a good food revolution in this country,” Allen said. People are beginning to grow their own food in urban areas. The key to doing it well is soil, Allen said repeatedly. Soil on farms is 50 percent less fertile than it was 50 years ago, and soil in cities is often contaminated, Allen said.
People need to be growing good, healthy soil. But most of the food waste that could be composted to create it is just “going into a big hole in the ground,” Allen said.
After Allen’s dizzying PowerPoint slideshow, laying out the exponential growth of his organization, the food summit broke into five working groups to dig into the Food Action Plan.
The plan lays out three goals—Increase access to healthful food for all New Haveners, strengthen the local food economy, and encourage “healthy food choices”—and 16 strategies to meet those goals. The task of the working groups was to come up with specific actions to take next.
In the “Urban Agriculture” working group, people tossed out a number of ideas: More community gardens, brownfield remediation, a system of shared gardening tools or shared trucks and tractors, harvest festivals, a community seed bank, local-food potluck dinners, hoop houses, an aldermanic resolution to make farming a land use priority.
Out of a total of 32 suggestions, many of the most popular had to do with composting, including the notion of city-wide organic recycling. Kline told the group that she is “about to launch into a conversation about municipal composting.”
Compost is the biggest expense for urban gardens, Kline (pictured) said later. All the ground in the city is contaminated and needs to be covered over with healthy soil, she said.
One dump truck of good compost can cost as much as $500, with a not-for-profit discount, Kline said.
She said her organization, New Haven Farms, wants to start producing its own. She said she’s been talking to staff at Yale, the city’s public works department, and the Livable City Initiative about cooperating on a large-scale compost system.
A lot of food waste goes to waste, she said. New Haven has lots of restaurants that would be happy to hand off their table scraps to be composted, she said.
Some restaurants in town already do that. Miya’s, for example, donates its food waste to Washington’s Waldingfield Farm’s composting efforts.
Stacy Spell (pictured), the West River neighborhood activist who this year started the Little Red Hen community garden, said municipal composting is a good idea. He said Hamden and West Haven already have systems for collecting and composting leaves, accessible to any resident. New Haven should do something similar, he said.
“It’s hard to leave a Will Allen talk without being obsessed with compost,” said Mark Bomford, the head of the Yale Sustainable Food project. He acknowledged that there has been “plenty of optimistic discussion” about large-scale compost cooperation in town, but declined to give any more details.
Smuts, the city’s chief administrative officer, later said that while he’s interested in city-wide composting, the city doesn’t have someone to spearhead the project right now, since the director of the Office of Sustainability stepped down a couple of months ago. He said the city currently pays for collected leaves and tree limbs to be trucked out of town and composted elsewhere. Yale does the same with its food waste, he said.
Asked about household compost pick-up, Smuts said, “That’s where we would probably look for this to head.” The city would need to get the system started with restaurants and institutions—including schools and universities—in order to have it make economic sense, he said.
As the conference wrapped up with a desert of rustic open-faced tarts, New Haven Food Policy Council Chair Tagan Engel (pictured) said composting has captured the imagination of a lot of people.
“This composting thing definitely has some teeth,” she said. “There is definitely so much interest in it.”
Tags: compost, food, food policy, urban agriculture, farming, Will Allen
Post a Comment
I love this idea. Getting the institutions on board first is a great initial step, but please allow us ordinary joes to contribute to the compost as well. There are a lot of leaves piling up in New Haven this time of year!
If the soil in New Haven is heavily contaminated, why would we compost leaves from trees that grow in that soil? The truth is that we could probably only compost from food scraps and clean garden material. Making this distinction to the people putting garden waste on the curb will be difficult, but critical to creating safe compost.
And just an FYI to Mr. Smuts…in my neighborhood the sanitation workers just put the lawn and leaf bags into the garbage. It doesn’t appear it is collected for any future use.
Good point but as I understand it, trees don’t take in lead as much as leafy and root vegetables. The bigger issue with leaves is raking because mostly, lead is spread through contact with contaminated soil dust churned up by raking.
DPW picks up leaves and other yard waste in the same vehicles as trash - they are supposed to finish their trash routes, hose out the truck, and return for yard pick-up. What you should look out for and let us know if you see (via SeeClickFix or 203-946-7700) is if you see them putting leaves in the truck at the same time as the garbage.
- Rob Smuts
posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on October 16, 2012 2:00pm
If the goal is to direct household compost towards local urban farms in the city, then it seems that the best way to do that would be at the scale of the neighborhood, rather than the entire city. Unfortunately, the neighborhood scale apparatus that might administrate this doesn’t really exist. Perhaps fewer wards through charter revision could be a starting point for creating more semi-autonomous neighborhood level governing systems. A citywide effort would most likely result in compost being directed to the largest and most successful farms, while smaller gardens in more central locations are passed over.
Its a very interesting idea though that is worth looking in to.
I used to be all for city composting, but i don’t think it’s scalable or safe. I’d never use that type of compost for my vegetable garden. Too many contaminants. And what about evasives? What if one person puts ivy in the mix? No thanks.
Also, most restaurants would mix meat in with the compost. Bad.
The idea I do like is being allowed to rake leaves in the street and let the city sweep them up with a vac and compost without the bags that I don’t want to buy!
Perhaps we should start with a compost in every back yard? I have 3 bins that can basically handle 80% of the leaves I get every fall and my daily table scrapes - what’s left over after the chickens get done.
Foodies talking to other foodies about composting. That’s a yawn to me.
I wish the food council would go after something like a sugar tax on the state level. Now there’s an idea with some healthy teeth behind it.
In the mean time, backyard composting is the easiest thing EVER, and makes very nice soil for you to use right in your own, you know, back yard. It’s good for flowers, too, if you don’t happen to be interested in growing vegetables (or don’t have the space or the sun). Anybody living in a house (as opposed to an apartment with no yard) can start right now, composting kitchen scraps (anything except meat, bones or grease) and turning them into soil instead of dead-ending them into landfills. If you do any gardening (“yard work”) at all, then add the pulled weeds, grass clippings and leaves. The cheapest and simplest compost containers are the wire-mesh ones for $40 from Gardener’s Supply (http://www.gardeners.com/on/demandware.store/Sites-Gardeners-Site/default/Search-Show?q=compost). All you do is dump your stuff in them. In a year or two you take the bin apart and there is a nice pile of rich soil-like compost, sweet-smelling and looking like chocolate cake. It’s literally that simple.
All the fancy intimidating stuff you read about composting is just to get the compost faster, or to induce you to waste money by convincing you composting is hard and complicated. Composting is SIMPLE. It is nothing but letting things rot. Things do that all the time, all by themselves! Go for it!