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Oct 5, 2020

“The Soil Is Alive”

An Introduction to L.A. Compost by Nadine Zylberberg

Michael Martinez founded L.A. Compost nine years ago as a “family and friends organization.” He and volunteers collected scraps from homes around the city on bikes and composted them in family and friends’ backyards. They gave the compost away at farmers’ markets and used donations to further fuel the effort.

Image: lacompost.org

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.”

Before L.A. Compost, as a fifth grade teacher in Los Angeles, Martinez started a school garden on campus.

“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.” 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…Compost transcends the initial pile.”

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.

L.A. Compost’s 32 hubs are in unique zip codes and vary from schools to community gardens. “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.”

One of L.A. Compost’s 32 hubs (Image courtesy of Michael Martinez)
Farmers’ market drop-off (Image: lacompost.org)

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. “What better person to service the neighborhood than the person that called that neighborhood home for so many years?”

He is working with the City of Los Angeles to develop parkland as potential compost sites. It’s an effort to reimagine the city’s public spaces and to bring compost front-and-center. The organization is part of 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.”

Image courtesy of Michael Martinez

“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.”

“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.”

Image courtesy of Michael Martinez

As part of the Steering Committee put forward by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, L.A. Compost regularly convenes with composters across the country to share best practices, stay in touch about changing policies, and discuss funding opportunities.

“[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…true community is established when it has everyone in mind.””

A recent L.A. Compost pop-up (Image courtesy of Michael Martinez)

When Michael Martinez puts a few hundred worms into the palms of a new composters hands — the same palm where a smartphone usually sits—the ultimate message, whether composting in an apartment or backyard or at a 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.

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