Michael Martinez loves soil — and, as founder and executive director of L.A. Compost, he’s making it his mission to help other people see the value it in too.
“There’s a lot of demystifying that needs to take place,” he said. “When we say compost, people think of manure or poop or flies or rats… or just dirt. The more you get into the world of soil, you recognize how beautiful it is, how alive it is, and how anything that is alive on this planet deserves protection and is viewed as sacred.”
Growing up, Michael’s parents always had a garden with fruit trees and held great respect for outdoor spaces and growing food. It’s this early outlook that led him to start a school garden while he was a fifth grade teacher in Los Angeles. This fostered meaningful conversations with students about where food really came from.
“It was there that I saw the impact and transformation — the ‘aha moments’ — that were taking place. Some of my students had never seen certain trees come from the ground. The level of ownership, appreciation, and investment they took and they had for the food was really incredible.”
When you think about it, these aha moments come down to soil. Through the process of planting and cultivating, Michael said, “we start to see—wow, the soil is alive, the soil has structure, [the microbial life in] soil is as vast as the universe above us.”
Another lesson he instilled in his students there was that “there is no such thing as waste, that everything has a purpose.” Things don’t just disappear, Michael noted. They have to go somewhere and they affect people along the way there. Composting became symbolic of the notion that we’re all part of something bigger than ourselves. Or as Michael put it, “Compost transcends the initial pile.”
As much as Michael can explain the process and the value of compost — and he does this well — the learning, ultimately, “is very much in doing it. When people see thousands of pounds of food scraps being put into a compost pile and see compost that’s already cooking and turned, they are witnessing the making of that finished product… in the same day.”
It’s with this mission, this quest for aha moments, that Michael began L.A. Compost seven years ago as a “family and friends organization.” He and volunteers would collect scraps from homes around the city on bikes and compost them in family and friends’ backyards. They would give the resulting compost away at farmers’ markets and use donations to further fuel the effort.
In 2014, L.A. Compost transitioned to a decentralized hub model. “L.A. is obviously very vast and spread out, so the idea of picking up on bikes was nice, but not really sustainable for us to grow over time.” The hub model allowed for localized solutions and community participation. The first one was at a high school with a church. The church gave L.A. Compost a small grant to start a school garden and composting center right there. “Food straight from the cafeteria is composted in the school garden, and the school garden uses the compost to create food, and the food is given away at the local farmers’ market down the street. It was a model that kept things on-site and revealed the full story of food,” Michael said.
Every hub is unique to its zip code. That high school began opening up to neighbors’ involvement, but in general, L.A. Compost’s 32 hubs vary from schools to community gardens. Every location is a partnership. “Every space or place has built a level of trust and transparency with that community,” Michael said. “The same way compost adds value to something that is growing, our programs don’t create anything new, but simply try to strengthen and add value and energy to the goodness that already takes place there.”
When the idea of hubs was first launched, it was shared through an app on the website. The organization had to quickly pull it down because within two weeks, there was a waiting list of 40 locations. “There was definitely a desire for organizations to have something like this,” Michael said. “And at the time when I had that application, it was just me. Now, we have a program manager that is in charge of having the initial conversation, of going out and talking about our model. It’s not just a matter of who is in the best position or who has funding or who has access to water, but rather who has a community that is realistically able to take on something like this.”
Sometimes, these conversations will reveal that communities “might not even need us.” It could be a homeowner or a restaurant that needs help figuring out what system works best for them. That’s where L.A. Compost’s workshops come into play.
The hub model incorporated other programs along the way, such as composting workshops and farmers market food scrap drop-offs. When COVID-19 hit, about one-third of L.A. Compost’s hubs were put on pause, Michael said. All the while, demand for composting went up. “Stay-at-home orders caused more people to be at home, cooking more, gardening more, so there was a desire to not really drop off scraps, but to gain access to this compost.” This led to short-term initiatives like a pop-up model at a community garden that, similarly to the former farmers’ market model, allowed families to drop off food scraps. (Farmers market drop-offs were suspended due to COVID-19.)
With Los Angeles as it is, Michael recognizes that L.A. Compost has to cater to different communities in different ways. In 2017, he began hiring compost managers to manage the hubs. “Although I’m from L.A., I can’t claim every part of the city, nor am I able to drive from Venice to Monrovia or Pacoima to Watts. So the idea of hiring people from those neighborhoods was really strategic in the sense of, what better person to service the neighborhood than the person that called that neighborhood home for so many years?”
He has also started conversations with the City of Los Angeles to figure out ways to develop parkland as “potential compost sites for the general public to be educated, but also for compost to be processed on-site at city parks.” It’s an effort to reimagine the city’s public spaces and to bring compost front-and-center. The organization is also part of a statewide grant program called Community Composting for Greener Spaces, with the effort to develop 50 new community compost sites. “Although it’s a drop in the bucket, it’s really showcasing that the state is in favor of this model,” Michael said. “And it’s only a matter of time when this becomes the norm across all cities in the country.”
With L.A. Compost, Michael has big dreams — which would make sense, serving the most populous county in the country. All the while, he maintains the same sense of community that he did in that fifth grade classroom or that first community hub.
“My dream is to really establish a powerful human network,” he said. “The same way we talk about the soil-food web and the soil network and all the power that soil possesses within the micro and macro organisms — I really want to reflect that power from a human side and talk about how we develop different levels of infrastructure, from the parks to the community gardens to the schools to the churches… and within the next five years, have different parts of the city capacitated with this infrastructure.”
Ultimately, he wants to “make compost normal, make compost something that is okay to have in your front yard, okay to have in a park, not tucked away hidden in the back.”
“It’s about creating that change at the household level, at the community level, at the park level, at the regional level — to make compost accessible and include all neighborhoods, not just the neighborhoods that have the space and means to put it forward.”
“I really do believe that compost has the power to do a lot,” he said. “We talk about diverting from landfill as an immediate need, and about the production of greenhouse gases. We talk about water-holding capacity, stormwater filtration. But I think we forget about the human side of it. Obviously, during COVID, we’re very isolated. We miss the physical and social interactions that we once had — and composting in the community, that’s probably one of the best things that it does: it allows neighbors to be outside, to be together, to turn a pile, to remember what it feels like to work and know someone by name and just know that your small contributions make a difference.”
When these communities add up, change transcends zip codes. As part of the Steering Committee put forward by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, L.A. Compost regularly convenes with composers across the country to share best practices, stay in touch about changing policies, and discuss funding opportunities. “What’s beautiful about this work is every city is unique, from the Baltimores in Maryland to Vermont, Connecticut… And every model is going to cater to the needs of the community. But I think the common denominator is getting people involved, having this smaller-scale approach to have it be more connected and restoring the lost connection because waste as a whole is very large and very far away.”
“[Trash] is a convenient system where material is picked up, you don’t have to think about it, and it gets shipped to the point where you don’t have to see it again. Whereas composting in community is very in-your-face. This is the lifeline of our soils and the more we ship it out, the more we lose that value. So the closer we can keep it to our communities, the closer we re-invest those resources back in the communities and in the soil that so desperately needs it.”
It’s a worthy exercise, to engage and participate in something bigger than ourselves, even if it’s turning a pile of compost. As Michael puts it, “true community is established when it has everyone in mind.”
Michael shares another one of those aha moments that he sees in people new to composting, particularly students. It’s when he puts a few hundred worms in the palms of their hands — the same palm where a smartphone usually sits, buzzing and lighting up and begging to be scrolled through. It’s these moments of realization that Michael is in the business of making happen. The ultimate message, whether you’re composting in your apartment or your backyard or your local high school, is that we — all of us — are nature. “We are the earth. It is not something that we are disconnected from. It is not something we have to go on a field trip to explore. We carry nature with us everywhere we go.”
Want to start composting? Take a look at L.A. Compost’s official how-to guide.