Community Compost Exchange
The PACT Grow-to-Learn program (GTL) and Food Security Initiative creates safe, experiential, and dynamic learning environments and community engagement hubs in priority neighbourhoods. Through teaching schools and communities about food and how it is grown, GTL acts as a catalyst in raising awareness of important issues related to healthy eating, nutrition, food security, environmental sustainability and hunger in schools and local communities.
One of the main initiatives to come out of the GTL is the successful Community Compost Exchange (CCE), now in its fifth year of operation. The CCE is a scalable exchange-system wherein community members bring their kitchen waste to the market, and in return are given market dollars to make purchases from a variety of produce grown onsite. The PACT GTL urban farm processes the kitchen waste into nutrient-dense compost which is used to grow new produce to sell at later markets. This accessible cyclical model of exchange and growth helps create healthy, connected and food secure neighbourhoods.
CCE has the capacity to positively impact urban food challenges by 1. providing a space for multi-family residential compost processing which would otherwise end up in the landfill, 2. minimizing food deserts, and 3. offering dignified access to affordable, healthy, culturally-appropriate fresh produce. By working with community to continually improve and test the scalability of the CCE model, we aim to change the narrative around organic food access and how incentivized waste systems can improve the overall health and sustainability of our communities and the environment.
Operating directly within the community of Lawrence Heights over the last several years, we came across two main systemic issues affecting those we worked alongside and served. Community members identified that, first, many community members live in multi-residential buildings with ineffective waste management programs. Secondly, Lawrence Heights, one of Toronto’s 31 neighbourhood improvement areas, has limited access to groceries and fresh produce, creating an area known as a food desert. The CCE model was developed in consideration of these two issues to incentivize and prioritize waste diversion and provide a new, local source of healthy, fresh produce.
The CCE program was developed using a grassroots approach to ensure success as a participatory and dignified program that acts as an alternative to the traditional food bank or grocery store model. When community members bring their kitchen waste to exchange, they are brought into direct contact with the urban farm environment, increasing their awareness and knowledge of, and personal investment in the growing processes of the food. Further, the farm-market increases the sense of agency of the community members by issuing credit in the form of market dollars and providing a wide variety of produce that community members can choose to buy. Effectively, this helps to break down the stigma associated with food assistance programs and eliminates the alienation that traditional food giving models can create.
The Community Compost Exchange started in 2014 with ten families that walked their food waste to the farm weekly and in exchange would harvest produce direct from the field. As more families and community members participated we had to design a monetary exchange system (market bucks), construct a midscale compost production system, and broaden our farm markets. In 2017 we had 134 families (432 individuals) participating by exchanging 31,500 pounds of food waste for 19,300 market dollars that were spent at 20 markets throughout the growing season.
The PACT GTL operates three urban farms beautifying over 1.75 acres of Toronto District School Board (TDSB) property and is expanding to encompass 3 acres by the end of 2018. We take unused school grounds and convert them into thriving growing spaces. These once purposeless areas are now flourishing, producing over 90,000 pounds of fresh produce since 2012. The PACT GTL ensures equitable access to produce through delivery to food banks, community programs, and local farmers markets.
Creating welcoming green space is an important component of CCE. Repurposing our built environment to be useful, greener and more inclusive spaces creates community excitement about being involved and getting outdoors. For example, we repurposed 1,684 feet of unwelcoming, unsightly metal security fencing into highly productive trellises that make people feel welcome and give our communities 24/7 access to a variety of produce, like beans. Using illegally dumped wood waste at our farm sites, we designed a sitting garden design that repurposed the wood into productive garden beds and gathering spaces. We aim to reinvent urban spaces into productive, welcoming, and connected spaces that challenge how these spaces have been traditionally used and viewed. As one community member noted:
[The PACT GTL is a]“Positive and beautiful space for our 4 year old toddler to learn about the environment and how plants grow. We live in a condo so we can’t have a garden of our own” (CCE Participant)
The CCE can be understood as an incentivized waste management system that promotes improved separation of food waste, which lessens the load on landfills. A recent survey of CCE participants showed that over 75% of participants composted more since joining CCE and 45% had never composted before; habitual separation of organics, garbage and recycling reduces strain on the entire waste management stream. In this way, the CCE helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions because food that ends up in landfills breaks down anaerobically and produces methane, a greenhouse gas with 25 times the global warming impact of CO2. Furthermore, the CCE helps reduce improper waste separation costs, which costs the city of Toronto over 5 million dollars yearly. The compost we produce from diverted food waste is rich in minerals and organic material that build our soil structure, which sequesters carbon, prevents erosion, and promotes water retention. This year we saved 203,331 pounds of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere and produced over 42 yards of finished compost. The CCE helps create greener communities, which have substantial long-term positive environmental impacts.
“I learned how to separate food waste from garbage” (CCE Participant)
Within the CCE, food is not solely about subsistence, it is a community connector; sharing food is an integral part of the program. At every market we make a nutritious meal prepared from garden produce. Eating produce available at the markets teaches about healthy eating, allows community members to consistently try new, healthy foods, and demonstrates different ways to prepare the produce being exchanged. Ultimately, being connected to the urban farm on a regular basis promotes eating more fruits and vegetables at home. Over 96% of CCE participants said the program gives them better access to fresh food, strengthening local food security. Coming together for a meal is also a time for people to meet, connect, share, and build community; it is not unusual to overhear the sharing of life stories, exchanging recipes, and trading favorite tea blends while at the market. The CCE is a powerful connector that supports strong, healthy communities. One community member described the impact of her participation in the CCE when they said:
“It made me start eating healthier. I feel really good about myself and my market” (CCE Participant)
Our urban farms also act as neighbourhood gathering and engagement hubs. For many of our senior participants, the daily walk to drop off their compost is important exercise, provides them with needed social interaction, and helps them get outdoors. Over 64% of participants walk or bike to our markets, which promotes physical health and sustainable habits alongside eating healthy. Time spent outside and in the gardens is an important factor in mental health; our markets and community programs help hundreds of students and community participants mitigate anxiety, stress, and social isolation in safe and productive ways:
“It has got my students more involved as a group and they feel more a part of the community” (CCE Participant)
One of the benefits of the CCE model is its impact is not limited to specific demographics or income levels; it connects communities together into a single food space. Almost everyone who comes to the market (96%) has talked to their friends, family, or neighbours about the CCE and almost everyone who comes to the market (93%) has met someone new in the community at the garden. Active education, varied produce, and shared meals continually break down barriers to neighbourhood cohesion; the GTL is an inclusive space. he CCE model improves food accessibility for those who need it most while simultaneously providing an alternative food marketplace and education resource for everyone. The appeal of the CCE is much broader than that of traditional charitable/food-bank models, as it fuses alternative forms of payment (exchange) in the urban farm/farmers market model and provides a dignified way for individuals to participate in their food choices. By inviting the community to participate and work within the farms, market days, and workshops, the CCE presents a refreshing point of departure from the socio-economic polarization which cities face today.
Our new workshop series, designed for community members and starting in 2018, will host hands-on educational and culinary workshops alongside our markets. Most people who come to the market want to learn more about things like composting, gardening, and cooking fresh food. These new workshops will be environmentally and socially based and will focus on our food systems and food preservation to disseminate food knowledge and further strengthen the food security of the community. Providing workshops on proper vegetable storage at home and easy recipes will educate, help further reduce our waste footprint, and help families make healthy choices while saving money on grocery bills.
“I feel better knowing I have access to good, healthy food. I look forward to coming on Tuesday and contributing to a community program for the environment” (CCE Participant)