Building a Human Network of Composters All Over L.A.

two people dumping food scarps into a pile of compost

Composting (Photo – LA Compost)

Senate Bill 1383 is now asking that all of us begin to deal with our own kitchen and yard compost, rather than sending it to the local landfills. It’s a message that organic gardeners have been preaching forever.

By Christopher Nyerges

It seems that Michael Martinez, founder of L.A. Compost, is a man who’s in the right place at the right time.

When Michael Martinez was studying Youth Ministry at Azusa Pacific University 2006-2010 with plans to be a youth pastor, he had no idea he would eventually become the composting evangelist of Los Angeles County.

But as the founder and Executive Director of L.A. Compost, that is precisely what he is today, spreading the word on how decaying food scraps are essential to healthy soil

His path to founding L.A. Compost actually began in Miami, where he moved after graduating from college in 2010 to teach 5th grade as part of Teach for America. “One day I was giving a lesson about seeds and trees and one of my students was eating Flaming Hot Cheetos,” said Mr. Martinez. “He asked ‘so, where do these come from?’ That’s basically how this all got started.”

Rather than lecture on fresh versus processed food, Mr. Martinez decided to show his students where real food comes from. With nine of the fifth graders and a few shovels, he formed a gardening club and undeterred by the fact that none of the children had any gardening experience, built the school’s first community garden. After a few weeks, the club grew to 40-plus students in addition to people from the neighborhood.

“Everyone really enjoyed being part of something bigger than themselves,” said Mr. Martinez. “They had a real sense of appreciation for what they grew.”

Twin passions

For Mr. Martinez, the experience cultivated twin passions. One is teaching. When he returned to L.A., he enrolled in graduate school at USC, earning his Master’s degree in Education in 2013.

The other passion is composting. Mr. Martinez saw that food scraps went to waste in landfills and garbage disposals, even as soils everywhere were depleted for lack of nourishment that the food scraps could provide. He wanted to stop the waste, to make composting a daily and widespread practice, and to reconnect people to the food cycle that is central to healthy living.

As soon as he graduated from USC, Michael and his brother, David, launched L.A. Compost as an all-volunteer (read: family and friends) enterprise. Focusing on Covina, West Covina, Whittier and Baldwin Park, the volunteers rode bikes equipped with trailer carts to coffee shops, collecting scraps, turning them into compost in their backyards and then giving the compost away at local farmers markets.

a woman sprinkling a pile of compost with water

Keeping the compost moist Composting (Photo – LA Compost)

L.A. Compost

The effort was – and remains — deeply meaningful to Mr. Martinez. “What we preach when we talk about the compost is how all of the scraps and ingredients in the pile are a reflection of the community,” he said. “What compost does is it takes something that is imperfect and incomplete, just as all of us are, and all the scraps come together to make something that is whole. Wholeness is only achieved when we work together toward a common goal. A common good. That’s really what this is all about.”

The message has resonated with supporters, allowing L.A. Compost, a composting collective, to grow. In late 2013, shortly after L.A. Compost completed the process to become a non-profit organization, it received its first grant — $10,000 from Fellowship Monrovia Church. It used the money to develop its first community compost hub at Monrovia High School, where residents could drop off their food waste for composting in professional-grade bins; the compost was then used to enrich the soil in 10 raised garden beds that were built at the school and tended by students.

With various grants to support the work, the non-profit now has 8 full-time employees, and 12 part-time, with 30 composting hubs all over L.A.

They appear every Tuesday at the Highland Park Farmers Market on Marmion Way, where residents can drop off their kitchen scraps. “The compost is given away to community members to use, and much of it stays at the community hubs for them to decide how to use it,” says Martinez.

Building a human network of composters

“Success is figuring out how different departments in the city and different community groups can work together to provide more sustainable solutions for Angelenos,” he said. “Our goal is to keep building that human network of composters across Los Angeles.”

“The compost that is dropped off at the Highland Park market goes to Regional Compost Hubs, located at parks and urban farms,” explains Martinez. Most of the Highland Park compost is processed at the Griffith Park Regional Compost Hub. LA Compost offers bilingual resources, composting materials, and a schedule of upcoming events on their website lacompost.org. You can stay up to date on upcoming events via their instragram.

Christopher Nyerges is the author of the new book Urban Survival Guide, available at  www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.

Christopher Nyerges
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