Photo: Hello Compost

For most people, the word “compost” probably conjures up images of farmland, giant stinky piles of banana peels, and someone in a pair of overalls wielding a pitchfork. But recycling food scraps into nutrient-rich soil is surprisingly adaptable to city life — even somewhere as urban as the Big Apple.

To prove it, two design students created Hello Compost, a new non-profit that offers low-income populations throughout New York City the opportunity to exchange their leftover food scraps for fresh produce. The program is slated to launch a trial-size group of 60 households in September.

Hello Compost is an exciting development for NYC’s communities, and it also sheds some light on the growth of urban composting throughout the country in recent years. More than ever, people in a variety of living situations are thinking about food waste and how to change our food system from the bottom (of the trash can) up.

What’s the Deal?

Luke Keller and Aly Blenkin, students at Parsons The New School for Design, dreamed up the Hello Compost concept as part of an academic thesis earlier this year. Right off the bat, they got in touch with Project EATS, a well-established NYC non-profit dedicated to enriching working-class areas via community-owned urban farms, farmers’ markets, and arts and cultural events. In March, the New York City Housing Authority granted Project EATS permission to temporarily store food waste at their farm site in Harlem. After a few meetings with Project EATS’ founder Linda Goode Bryant, Keller and Blenkin realized they were striving after the same goals: One, to create an urban composting system, and two, to invent some kind of community-based, non-monetary currency that would promote local farms and healthy eating.

Sounds great on paper, but compost is dirty, stinky, and kind of unsanitary in a tight apartment, right? Wrong: Hello Compost gives each participating household a freezable, odor-blocking bag (they come in small and large sizes to accommodate different lifestyles) that keeps your scraps in one place and odor-free. Each participant also gets a detailed set of instructions so they know what can and can’t be composted.

Full bags are brought to Project EATS, where the contents are weighed and exchanged for credits that can be used to purchase fresh produce from Project EATS’ farms and markets (The Hello Compost team is still figuring out the exact conversions of compost-to-credits and credits-to-dollars.).

The result is a win-win: Community members receive social support and healthy produce and local farms receive valuable compost with which to enrich their crops. Even beyond these benefits, Keller’s number-one priority is the environment. He wants to get food waste out of rapidly-filling landfills and help NYC communities participate in environmentally-friendly eating practices.

Why it Matters

Every week, many of us are probably guilty of looking in the fridge, opening up a container, giving the contents the “sniff test,” and deciding to toss the leftovers. It seems like no big deal, but every year our country produces over 35 million tons of food waste. According to 2011 statistics, 96 percent of those funky leftovers and scraps end up in a landfill or incinerator. And while most of us are throwing out food willy-nilly, a whopping 14.5 percent of American households are food insecure, meaning they don’t know where their next meal will come from. There’s clearly a disconnect between our food supply and the food we waste, but how can we recalibrate our food system?

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the best way to reduce food waste is to prevent it from happening in the first place: Buy less, store correctly, and use leftovers wisely. The next best thing is to use food waste — and one of the easiest ways to do so is through composting, which creates nutrient-rich soil that can be used to grow more food. The natural compounds derived from compost can also remove chemicals from runoff water and help restore wetlands and other habitats, among many other uses.

When it comes to food waste, New York City acts like a microcosm for the entire country. The concrete jungle produces up to 36,000 tons of trash each day, and more than 20 percent of that is food waste. Last year alone, the city government spent $336 million hauling and burying 1.2 million pounds of food waste in landfills throughout the Northeast United States. But NYC deserves some credit for working to reorganize its food systems: The NYC Department of Sanitation launched the city’s first composting program in 1993, and it’s been growing in leaps and bounds ever since. Today, the program has drop-off sites in four of New York’s five boroughs.

The Hello Compost program seems like a good way to test how composting programs can help stem food waste and provide food security to low-income families in New York. By providing working-class households with access to local crops and a way to dispose of food waste responsibly, Hello Compost and Project EATS are tackling two of the most difficult and persistent problems (excess waste and insufficient access to healthy food, a.k.a. “food deserts”) that plague the American food system. With any luck, these programs will serve as models that can be implemented throughout the country.

Is it Legit?

It remains to be seen. Keller intends to use Hello Compost’s first 60-household cohort (which launches in September) as a trial run for the program. As of right now, Keller, Blenkin, and their friends at Project EATS don’t know exactly how communities will react to composting and the waste-for-credits currency system. But there’s hope in previous experiments: Keller mentioned already-established programs like CompostNow in North Carolina and the Food for Waste Programme in South Africa as inspiration.

The biggest challenge will be how to tie together the program’s many moving parts. For Hello Compost to succeed, it must create incentives for people to compost, promote the benefits of purchasing fresh produce, and connect those two activities to building a strong, healthy community. These aren’t easy tasks in the first place, and they’re compounded by challenges (such as size and expensive living costs) unique to New York City. On the bright side, Hello Compost and Project EATS are thinking ahead, which is a rarity in today’s culture of immediate gratification. All signs show that responsible waste management and local, fresh food are essential to maintaining healthy bodies and, equally importantly, a healthy planet.

Do you think more cities should introduce composting for food waste? Would you compost if given the opportunity? Share your thoughts in the comments below or tweet the author @SophBreene.