Our garbage can – and so can yours!

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When Oscar the Grouch so wisely exclaimed, “It’s called garbage can, not garbage cannot!” he wasn’t just referring to his treasured home on Sesame Street, but to the abundant source of life living – and working – in our garbage to help process our food waste, improve sustainability, reduce landfills and ultimately, help feed the hungry.

As an urban farmer and agricultural specialist at Fairgate Farm in Stamford,  I’m honored to work alongside dozens of volunteers from the neighborhood, local schools and community organizations. But our hardest workers here at Fairgate Farm often go unseen and are given little credit for their contributions in growing nutrient-dense organic produce for our local community. That contribution is especially important in a neighborhood plagued by poverty and the all-too-common daily struggles of dealing with food insecurities.

Even among scientific communities, the endless world of soil microbes is still mostly unknown. But we’re now realizing their existence is vital to healthy soils, which produce healthy food. Good soil is teaming with life, and the more you work with this life, the more they work with you. Less than one 8-ounce cup of healthy soil has more microbes than there are humans on earth. At Fairgate Farm we are committed stewards of our precious soil. We understand that the vibrant life below our feet is critical to our biodiverse urban farm, and it has inspired our “Community Composting Initiative” and “No Till” philosophy.

Fairgate Farm is a thriving, urban, community farm that provides locally grown food to volunteers and nonprofits. We also offer an array of environmental, nutritional and healthy- eating programs to disadvantaged kids, adults and families. The West Side neighborhood surrounding Fairgate Farm is an environmental justice “area of concern” with concentrated minority and low-income populations, high rates of chronic medical conditions, and the poorest social determinants of health in the metro region and across the state.

With these concerns in mind, the Fairgate Farm Community Composting Initiative was developed and recently awarded a $26,250 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The grant will help support the Fairgate Farm Community Composting Initiative mission of educating more than 1,000 residents, community partners and volunteers. This project includes informational handouts and signs, workshops, and one-on-one educational outreach about the financial and environmental benefits of composting. We also focus on the importance of increasing food recovery rates and empowering low-income community members to advance their own food security.

The Composting Initiative is at the core of Fairgate Farm’s mission to achieve food justice in the West Side by allowing all community members to exercise their right to grow and eat healthy food. It also complements Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) efforts to recycle food waste and transform organic waste into fertilizer and electricity. Several cities are planning or already operating composting centers, but they suffer from limited capacity and little public knowledge or support.

Organic waste in landfills generates the powerful greenhouse gas methane, which is why some states are taking an aggressive approach to avoid this dangerous side effect by banning unnecessary food waste disposals in landfills. According to a 2010 DEEP study, approximately 312,000 tons of recyclable organic waste is being thrown away annually, and when you add waste paper and yard trimmings, that amount more than doubles. By 2020, producers of more than one ton of food waste will have to recycle, and educational outreach is now underway with schools and the business community to raise awareness.

Composting food waste is a crucial step in reducing the emissions of this potent climate- changing gas. Composting is also a natural process for carbon sequestration, in which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and trapped in the soil. We’ve diverted 15,000 pounds of waste from Stamford’s waste stream in 2016, are aiming for over 20,000 pounds in 2017, and have set our sights on 15 percent increased reductions each subsequent year.

The compost we create at Fairgate Farm is utilized onsite and also given to other urban gardens, community partners and volunteers for expanding individualized efforts in food production and beautification throughout the city of Stamford. Every food scrap that has been tossed in the garbage and taken to the local landfill had potential to contribute to nature, not poison our air or take up valuable space.

We’ve been taking this message to the community, and to local schools. Kids, especially, are first disgusted, then amazed when they see, smell, and experience the transition of decomposing food scraps from slimy and stinky to the rich, sweet, and beautiful end product: Nutrient-rich, pesticide-free organic fertilizer.

School children are especially overjoyed by earthworms and the vital role they play in our gardens and in agricultural sustainability. Healthy soil has up to 50 earthworms per square foot, and each contributes mightily to the production of the healthy soil we rely on for gardening and agricultural food production.

This composting initiative is being managed by Charter Oak Communities (COC) in partnership with the City of Stamford, the Food Bank of Lower Fairfield County, Connecticut Food Bank, Franklin Street Works, New Covenant Center, Scofield Manor, Shop Rite, and Starbucks. COC has collaborated extensively with the City, local non-profits, businesses, and community members to implement an array of public health initiatives supported by federal, local, and philanthropic resources in the West Side.

This effort is directly related to the “Vita Health and Wellness District,” a revitalization corridor that began with Fairgate Farm six years ago and has since grown to include numerous needs-informed initiatives designed to remediate environmental contamination, reduce childhood obesity, improve walkability, promote self-sufficiency, assure affordable, quality housing and foster a culture of health and wellness.

Understanding the complex ecosystems of soil is an amazing eye-opening journey for the hundreds of volunteers, students and guests who visit our Farm and are participating in the composting initiative. Healthy soils are teaming with life and nutrients, and benefiting humans, plants, animals and the air we breathe. Fairgate Farm’s organic practices, composting, and no-till approach to building quality soil is positively changing the way people see garbage and food waste.

Although composting has been around thousands of years, we are realizing now, more than ever, the importance of actively participating and doing our part to reduce waste, improve sustainability and generate healthy fruit and vegetables. It’s an honor to be part of this progressive urban community that’s nourishing relationships with one another and with our natural environment. And this week, as we celebrate Earth Day, I can’t think of a better way to honor the earth than to ensure that all of its inhabitants work together to utilize the valuable natural resources we’ve been charged with protecting.

Maxon Keating is the Farm Coordinator and Community Builder for Fairgate Farm in the Vita Health & Wellness District of Stamford.

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