Food for thought: Even in Waco, access to healthy food is not a given, especially in inner-city neighborhoods. And we’re unconsciously squandering valuable organic waste by dumping it into landfills where it produces dangerous methane gas. What if there were solutions to both grow local food sources in underserved communities and reduce food waste city-wide?
That’s where a new collaborative group comes in to do just that in Waco: launch long-term, sustainable and equitable initiatives that make healthy food accessible to all, while diverting potentially productive food waste — organic material which can be composted — from the landfill. The Sustainable Community and Regenerative Agriculture Project (SCRAP) Collective brings together the City of Waco, national funder The Funders Network and local funder the Cooper Foundation with Baylor University and (to date) five nonprofit partners who are already active in urban gardening, composting or food waste reduction.
Wacoan writer Susan Bean Aycock touched base with group members to see how they are forming innovative partnerships and programs to tackle complex environmental justice issues — and aiming to educate today’s citizens to prepare tomorrow’s stewards of our resources.
Urban food equity and environmental sustainability comprise a complicated tangle of interwoven issues: tons of food waste in landfills that could be productive through composting; methane gas emissions caused by unaerated organic matter in those landfills; urban food deserts where fresh food is hard to find; food insecurity in which people literally don’t have enough to eat; and food apartheid — the inequity in healthy food availability that disproportionately affects lower socio-economic groups and communities of color.
In searching for ways to fund innovative, environmentally impactful projects, Waco Sustainability Programs Manager Eric Coffman found a Partners for Places (P4P) grant opportunity, offered through The Funders Network, that he thought would be a good fit in this city with a history of strong collaborations. It just had a complicated set of requirements.
First, qualify for a planning mini-grant with partners that includes the city and diverse partner nonprofits. Then, apply for a larger matching operational grant which required a local funding partner to match the national P4P grant. And they would need an equity advisor to make sure that not only were the group’s members diverse, but that the projects they initiated addressed inequity issues of food access and distribution.
P4P grants, funded through the national organization The Funders Network (TFN), encourage partnerships between local municipalities, funders and community organizations to tackle issues of climate change and environmental justice. After Coffman helped write the first proposal and identify collaborative partners, TFN awarded the group a $10,000 mini-grant last year and this spring granted a matching $150,000 P4P grant with the Cooper Foundation, who signed on as the grant’s required local partner.
The collective currently includes the City of Waco, Baylor University, Urban REAP of Mission Waco|Mission World, the World Hunger Relief Institute, Global Revive, Da’Shack Farmers Market and Nursery and Family of Faith Worship Center, all local entities already involved in community gardening, composting, equitable food distribution or other sustainable food supply or food waste reduction efforts.
“Throughout 2022, we met with [local] entities already working on composting initiatives in their spheres, to see how we could collaborate and build a vision together,” said Urban REAP Director Emily Hills, who chairs the group. “Through the process, we focused on relationship-building, grew our network, engaged our communities on the issue and identified a few solutions to promote composting, gardening and food waste reduction throughout central Texas.”
The group’s ambitious and comprehensive strategic plan includes:
• Food waste recovery: Food diversion from the landfill, which includes composting,
• Food security: Local food production through urban gardening,
• Health: Working to ensure healthy food access and environmental solutions for all and
• Community and education: Cross-sector collaborations and educational strategies to promote healthier and more equitable communities.
The Funders Network and P4P, National Grant Funders
TFN comprises more than 170 foundations across the United States and Canada that bring together funders and partners from diverse backgrounds on issues such as climate and environment; disaster preparation; equity; inclusive economies; transportation, mobility and access; and urban water. TFN’s Partners for Places grant program focuses on collaboration between local government, community sustainability leaders and place-based funders within those areas.
Cooper Foundation, Local Grant Funder
Madison Cooper, Jr. established the Cooper Foundation in 1943 as a tribute to his parents Madison A. Cooper and Martha Roane Cooper to “make Waco a better or more desirable city in which to live.” Since then, the Cooper Foundation has contributed more than $28 million to qualifying nonprofits to fund initiatives benefiting education, health, arts and culture, community building, social services and senior citizens.
“To my knowledge, no other group has applied to Cooper Foundation for funding for a project addressing environmental equity,” said Executive Director Felicia Goodman. “This group’s dedication to the collaborative process, to including community input in the program design process and to ensuring all partners have an equal voice and spot at the table is enabling them to develop equitable partnerships that will last beyond the grant and project.”
City of Waco
With “support sustainability” as one of the Waco City Council’s strategic goals, an initiative was launched in 2021 through the city manager’s office to create the Office of Sustainability and Resilience. Sustainability Programs Manager Coffman’s job is to develop policies and programs that promote healthy air, water, land and food, and address the significant issues of climate change and environmental justice in Waco.
“Our goal is for this grant to kickstart a long flourishing movement towards local, sustainable food production and food waste diversion,” he said. “There have been champions for community gardens and composting in the past, but sometimes projects get started and then a key person moves away or doesn’t have time to keep things going. By creating a collaborative, we believe we have the foundation for long-term support for all these projects in Waco and at Waco ISD schools.
“On a national level, the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] estimates that about 24% [of landfill material] comes from food waste, and with other organic material it gets up to about one-third,” said Coffman. “The City of Waco landfill takes in about 300,000 tons of waste in a year from McLennan County and 12 surrounding counties. It takes effort to do something different with your food scraps than just dump them in the trash. Like recycling, people need to learn why it’s important and decide the effort is worth their time. For people that are concerned about climate change and reducing their carbon footprint, keeping food waste out of the landfill is a great solution.”
BU Professor of English Dr. Joshua King helped to create the Environmental Humanities Minor which will be offered for the first time this fall. Its “engaged learning” requirement will involve students in community-based grassroots environmental education and action.
“While there will be a range of opportunities for engaged learning [in the minor], a priority is strengthening partnerships between Baylor, the City and local nonprofits that replace our wasteful, environmentally destructive and unequal food system with one that nurtures healthy communities through equal access to nutritious local produce,” he said. “Over the next year, we’ll be training teachers to strengthen and build classes and projects on gardening and composting, and creating opportunities for students to assist nonprofit organizations who are growing locally sourced food for underserved communities. Baylor has a community garden on the edge of campus at Ninth and James Streets that we hope will become a center for learning and service. Sadly, a number of students at Baylor are themselves food insecure, so we also hope the garden will offer opportunities to train students in gardening and producing their own food.”
Dr. Stephanie Boddie, assistant professor of Church and Community Ministries at BU, serves as the group’s equity consultant, helping partners think through equity in terms of people and resources. She also coordinates with schools and congregations looking to engage in gardening and composting.
“This is not just a composting project; it addresses food insecurity and poverty in Waco with ways to increase access to healthy foods in what are considered food deserts,” Boddie said. “It’s a way to build infrastructure to cultivate a regenerative food culture.”
Mission Waco | Mission World Urban REAP
Mission Waco’s Urban REAP (Renewable Energy & Agricultural Project) is an inner-city plant nursery that offers workshops on gardening and composting. Its Compost Club collected more than 24,000 pounds —12 tons! — of food waste in 2022 alone. Compost Club subscribers pay a monthly fee for a clean bucket with lid to collect organic waste from their homes and can swap it out for a clean one any time. Their Community Composter Certification course, piloted in 2021, aims to create a network of community members who advocate and spread composting initiatives throughout central Texas.
“People approach food waste from different angles,” Hills said. “Some see it as an environmental concern that fills our landfills and produces methane; others compost to build soils for gardening; and others see it as a food security concern that impacts community health. Changing behavior is a complex process that is not a one-size-fits-all solution — there are many factors that contribute to the current way we dispose of our organic waste. We’ve found that there’s already a lot of interest in composting and gardening, and we can bolster these initiatives into more robust programs that can lead to more food waste diversion.”
World Hunger Relief Institute (WHRI)
WHRI is a Christian organization with a 40-acre farm just north of Waco that fights hunger by practicing small-scale farming through sustainable practices, with educational opportunities that include field trips and tours, farm camp, internships, classes and workshops and service learning. Now in its 47th year of operation, WHRI composts waste from several partner locations across the city and has a community composting drop-off bin at the front of its property. Its urban homestead demonstration garden is a teaching facility that educates people in creating backyard gardening and composting systems.
“We want to provide a learning context to empower people to shift the whole food system narrative by growing food and composting at home,” said WHRI Director of Education Sky Toney. “I really hope that this [collective] is the start of a community-wide transformation to create a healthier food system that reduces trash and encourages people to take responsibility for turning waste into something valuable for the community.”
Kay Bell, who founded Global Revive in 2014 as “an agriculture and art organization,” is also the president of the Waco chapter of National Women in Agriculture Association, which provides outreach and resources to rural minority women.
“Global Revive’s purpose is to revive the culture of growing your own garden and eating healthily and locally,” said Bell. “We have a ‘ROW’ urban garden at Lincoln and Pearl streets in East Waco; that stands for ‘Raising Organic Wealth.’ People are given three rows each on our two-acre lot, to grow anything they want; what they don’t use, we’ll sell at the farmers market. Global Revive and National Women in Agriculture each have booths at the new Wednesday Farmers Market at Bridge Street Plaza in East Waco. We do composting on site at the ROW garden, and get coffee grounds from two businesses, Panera Bread and the Eighth Street Market by Magnolia. This collaboration brings together like-minded people who want to eat healthier and save the earth. It can be a model for how other people and groups can come together to bring healthy nutrition and reduced waste to the community.”
Da’Shack Plant Nursery and Farmers Market
Da’Shack owner Donna Nickerson, Ph.D., LCSW, has a thriving psychotherapy practice in the Dallas area. But she spends three months a year providing mental health services in Waco and running Da’Shack, a house in East Waco that was previously a thrift store run by her parents, who still live in the area. Da’Shack is a combination holistic health center, plant nursery and farmers market where Donna pulls produce straight from the backyard garden. As part of the collective, Da’Shack will provide educational classes on home gardening and composting (there’s a composting bin at the nursery where a bag of organic scraps will get you 15% off your purchase).
“In this group collaboration, we just all work together with whatever we each can bring to the table,” she said. “If we really want to change how we deal with food waste, every single person and entity has to participate.”
But it’s not all about just the plants or composting, though that’s clearly a passion that she wants to pass on to others.
“In society, it’s hard for us to agree and get along as individuals, but we can come together in the garden,” Nickerson said. “In the diverse world we live in, people are often not included. You can start by getting out of your comfort zone and trying to grow some different plants alongside of what you already have, so that they all thrive. Then you can transfer those skills to how you deal with different people.”
Family of Faith Worship Center
“As a church, we try to meet our congregation’s spiritual needs, but we’re also active outside its four walls. We partner with various community agencies and nonprofits to serve our community of predominantly first- and second-generation Hispanics,” said founding and — 18 years later — current pastor Rubén Andrade. “One of the biggest parts of our ministry outreach is the food pantry, where we give out free groceries every Tuesday morning and evening. Right now, we’re serving about 325 families, or around 800 people.
“In March of 2021, I had a heart attack brought on by undiagnosed diabetes, and I actually died on the table before coming back. That experience gave me a profoundly different look on both my personal life and my role as a pastor. I wanted to inform people about eating healthy, exercising and maintaining their health through lifestyle choices. And I thought, let me do my part to provide that. We wondered what to do with the food waste from cooking classes and the pantry, and we arranged to have a hog farmer pick up scraps so it wouldn’t go into the landfill. Then when [initiative equity consultant] Dr. [Stephanie] Boddie came around to ask if we’d be interested in a collaborative composting project, we were all in. We’re planning a new community garden right across the street — we haven’t even broken ground yet — but we’ll have a composting site right there. We want to teach our community members how to grow fruits and vegetables and how to prepare them healthily, with a special focus on diabetes and how much food choice affects that.”
SCRAP has ambitious goals with a lot of moving parts. But by working together, training future leaders and empowering advocates, partners are building a model for future sustainability and replication.
“This project has included two important components for long-term success: relationship-building and community engagement,” said Hills. “We’re striving to create a culture for change, not just a one-time project, so that even as people change positions, the initiative continues to move forward. This project also engages community members through multiple components, including gardening; composting infrastructure for food waste collection; and gardening and composting education throughout our diverse neighborhoods. We provide multiple on-ramps for people to join the project while also building relationships with others. I hope that this will grow into a much larger cultural shift in Waco.”
This initiative is so new that it doesn’t have a website yet. For more information on how to get involved, contact one of the partner organizations.
How to start composting at home with answers from our group panel of beginners to experts
You can buy a lot of different kinds of compost systems, or build your own with wood, mesh wire or even a 13-gallon Rubbermaid trashcan with a lid with holes punched in it. The big thing I tell people is that you’re cultivating microbes and you need to treat them like pets: give them oxygen and water with the food that’s the composting material. Size is important too; the rule of thumb is to put in pieces the size of your palm or smaller so it composts faster. Then turn it every week on average.
A lot comes down to behavior change. Look at how you can make a few small changes at first. It can feel overwhelming but do it in baby steps. Maybe at first just collect your food waste and drop it off at one of the sites around town. Then once you get used to collecting your scraps, make your own simple pile. It’s just a huge injustice to throw away food when many people — even here in Waco — aren’t certain where their next meal will come from. There’s no quick fix, but composting is a start.
–Emily Hills, Director of Urban REAP, Mission Waco
How do I get started? It’s easy to start composting; you don’t have to start out large. Start by separating all your organic kitchen scraps: fruit peels, ends of vegetables, eggshells and coffee grinds. Just keep them in a bag or container in the kitchen, dig a little hole in your yard and throw it out there. For best results, you’ll want to do some maintenance, but all of the organic materials your compost pile want to break down into fertile soil. You’ve just got to set them up for success.
What can I put in my compost bucket? What can’t I? Do put in vegetable trimmings, fruit peels, eggshells, bread and tortilla scraps and coffee grounds. The big don’ts are meat, dairy, oil and chemicals.
What should I collect kitchen scraps in? DIY a Tupperware container with lid, use a sealable Ziplock baggie or a bowl covered with a lid or plate — all will work. It should just be closeable and easy to dump scraps into. A wide variety of styles are available online. Some have a perforated top with a filter for better aeration.
Won’t compost smell, both inside and outside? Your kitchen collection bucket shouldn’t smell if you keep it covered and empty it every day, and are making sure not to add meat products. On your compost pile outside, it only starts smelling funky if you don’t have oxygen in your compost system — either from enclosing it too tightly or not turning an open pile often enough. Tumblers can work, but sometimes they stay too moist. Do balance wet and dry, or green and brown. For dry or brown material, add sawdust, wood chips, paper egg cartons and dry leaves. If it smells, it’s too wet — so add more dry material; you can cap your pile with about 1.5 to 2 inches of wood chips. Your pile should be more dry than wet, about the texture of a wrung-out sponge.
Can I still compost if I live in an apartment or place without a yard? Just collect your organic food scraps and take them to a drop-off composting location such as Urban REAP (which has a Composting Club that provides buckets), World Hunger Relief Institute or — by early summer — the Saturday Downtown Waco Farmers Market.
If producing contaminating methane gas is a problem in landfills, why isn’t it a problem in home compost? Organic food waste in a landfill not turned and oxygenated or food waste sealed in plastic bags create an anaerobic (non-oxygenated) breakdown producing microorganisms that create methane gas. Aerobic (oxygenated) breakdown, as with open compost that’s turned regularly, doesn’t produce that methane gas. Methane is a greenhouse gas whose presence in the atmosphere affects the earth’s temperature and climate system.
What if I don’t do it right? You’ll figure out what works for you with what you have to work with. How much space, how much time, how much money — all that will determine what kind of composting system works best for you. It’s all about your comfort level and what you’re willing to do and will keep up with.
Tales from the Trenches
These local home gardeners began composting with guidance from Da’Shack Farmers Market and Nursery owner Donna Nickerson.
“A lot of people give up on gardening because they haven’t been taught how to do it properly,” she said. “But if you start with Step One — soil health—and learn the proper steps to keep going after that, you can learn to be successful.”
Darius Ewing served District 4 (which includes most of the downtown area) on the city council in 2020, and is running again for the position. He’s been composting his home garden for about a year with wife Hannah choosing the native plants and pollinators for the front beds; they’ll welcome a little one into the fold this fall.
Generally, I hate waste. So any opportunity I have to give something another chance at being used, I’ll take it, and logistically I try as much as I can to divert from the landfill because that is a finite space, and there is only so much that can be put there. From a garden perspective though, good compost is steroids for whatever it is that you’re growing, and being able to have my own that I can literally pull from at any time has been a game changer.
I’ve got seven raised beds where I grow mostly vegetables and flowers, and so I was able to take all of the waste from those beds coupled with daily coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable waste from consumption and grass clippings and start a compost pile in about a 7-by-7 foot space in my garden area. Last year when I installed a ground sprinkler system in my beds for when we travel over the summer, I added a small sprinkler head at the compost pile as well and this year the pile of compost was the base for all seven of my beds. The garden produces more than enough lettuce, spinach, herbs, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes and okra for the two of us, which means I can usually give some home-grown produce away to friends.
Angelica Mazé is a freelance food writer who writes blogs, newsletters and develops recipes for a handful of craft spirit companies in the California East Bay area, and is a frequent contributor to the Waco Insider, highlighting local culinary talent and exploring Waco foodways. She lives with her partner in the country near Riesel and shares a compost bin with her parents, who live next door.
I’ve been composting successfully for about a year now, but I experienced several pitfalls before Donna from Da’Shack set me straight. The standing and rotating plastic barrel I bought a few years ago was an expensive disaster. Without a covered area to store it, the leaky barrel quickly became waterlogged and the compost rotted without breaking down properly. I also tried using a large plastic trash bin for composting, but as it filled up, turning the compost became more and more difficult and the whole setup was very awkward to maneuver. It was Donna who suggested I begin composting right on the ground with a ring of cinder blocks to hold it all in, although I ended up using a galvanized aluminum planter ring. It works beautifully. I turn the compost about once a week with a shovel.
Composting is super important to us. Eliminating plant matter from our landfill trash has cut our trash output in half, at least. So, that’s less trash for the landfill, which is a small environmental win for our two households. And I hate to spend money on compost when I can make my own here at home with very little effort! I cook a lot and I hate waste, so it only makes sense that I use every scrap from my kitchen to create healthier soil and plants. And if you miss trash day, as I occasionally do, it’s a lot less stinky without all the plant matter breaking down in plastic bags.
I think I want the same thing Donna wants in terms of educating people about compost, namely that it isn’t a big labor-intensive time-suck. Anyone can compost if they have a small outdoor space to start a compost heap! Most of us are very busy, and I often felt like composting was this big project that would require a lot of time and energy I didn’t have, particularly after my initial compost failures. I save money not buying compost, I throw out less trash and my plants and soil are better off.
Linda Lewis lives on the property where she grew up next door to her grandparents in pre-tornado East Waco, with a garden that includes plum and peach trees, a 100-year-old pecan tree, poke salad, greens, carrots, tomatoes, corn and sweet potatoes. A volunteer partner with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund for 16 years in her ‘retirement,’ she worked for two Texas governors in the 1980s.
I’ve been a lifelong gardener and composter, for at least 50 years. My grandmother grew most of the vegetables we ate when I was growing up. Now my friends say I have the richest compost heap in Waco, since I try to eat clean, healthy food and all of my scraps go into the compost. Why should you compost? This life-long government bureaucrat says just look at your water bill; the highest cost is solid waste! It’s in our own best interest, especially those on fixed incomes, to not put all this biodegradable stuff in the landfill. Issues with clean water and solid waste disposal impact your household income, your monthly budget, your health and safety — and people all over the world compost. Now, since I’m older and don’t get down on the ground like I used to, I garden mostly in containers to grow tomatoes, basil, collard greens and arugula. And all those campaign signposts? They make great stakes in the garden for tomatoes!
Natural bug killer if your compost pile has fire ants:
1 gallon white vinegar + 1 cup of salt +
2T Dawn dishwashing detergent
Briana Drennan is a stay-at-home mom who homeschools her four kids: Soloman, 8; Judah, 7; Eloise, 4; and Obi, 1. She practices urban gardening on their quarter-acre lot, where the compost pile takes up the smallest corner of the yard in a system that husband Devin constructed from four wooden pallets with a door.
My daughter Eloise and I are the ‘garden fairies’ (as she refers to us) and spend quite a few hours every day outside tending to our garden. Composting is a group effort. While I cook and prep food, my older two or my husband will take our bowl of compostable items out to our composting area and mix everything up. It’s really important to me to show my kids how they can help the earth in their own way. We started a low-waste journey last year and this was one way we are cutting our waste in a manner that’s practical with so many small children.
It’s not as hard as you think. I was so scared to start because I didn’t want to do it wrong and have a huge pile of rotten trash in our yard. After talking to Donna and how encouraging she was, how simple she made it, I decided to go ahead and make the jump! My garden has only thanked me after using compost.