Mostly when people think about composting, it’s a pile in the backyard. It seems pretty simple. In many ways, it is. But the state of Iowa, long known for its beautiful farms, has taken that a big step further with the help of a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The community pilot project in Decorah is one of 45 cooperative agreements that support innovative, scalable plans to reduce and divert food waste from landfills.
The city of Decorah, however, had an interest in composting before the state received the grant. In January, Decorah’s Sustainability Commission endorsed a project that made high-quality home composting bins at reduced prices available for Winnishiek County; but the $106,000 grant was also very welcome. Additionally, $85,000 came from the USDA, and $21,000 was a local match from the city’s Sustainability Fund.
The grant program requires a local match of 20%, explained Jeremy Bril, city engineer and street commissioner for Decorah. “The USDA provides 80% of the total eligible project costs. Our matching funds came from the city of Decorah. And, specifically, we will use revenues generated from our electric franchise fee to cover the city’s portion of the project. We do not expect additional funds will be needed for this pilot project, but if any of the components of the project are implemented on a permanent basis, additional funds will be necessary. Depending on the extent of the funds needed for permanent projects, we would expect the electric franchise fee would then be the primary funding source for the city.”
Why would any city want to do such a project? Well, why wouldn’t it? Food waste in landfills – or any other trash receptacles – can cause all kinds of problems such as animals tearing into and scattering trash; and a greater fly population, which increases the risk of disease; and those are just a few of the possible issues. If not in a landfill, where would the food waste go? What’s the best way to deal with it? And what defines ‘best’?
Enter the Sustainability Committee
Bril said, “A few years ago, our city council appointed a Sustainability Committee, and this committee recently worked with city residents and local leaders to develop a Sustainability Plan for the city. One goal within that plan is to reduce the amount of waste that is sent to our local landfill. Since food waste is often a significant portion of solid waste sent to the landfill, increasing the amount of community composting was listed as one of the plan’s objectives.
“We were made aware of this USDA funding opportunity from Jennifer Trent, with the Iowa Waste Reduction Center, after attending a training on community composting. The pilot program seemed like a perfect opportunity for us to try out some larger-scale composting efforts that could potentially be implemented in our community. After being made aware of the funding opportunity we assembled a team of community partners to work on developing a grant application. The program is a competitive grant that requires an application be submitted to the USDA for consideration.”
The pilot project laid out multiple objectives, including increasing community home composting, working to incorporate food waste into the city’s compost process, and improving the city’s compost facility to develop a higher quality compost. There are various partners on board as well, including the Decorah Sustainability Commission, Winneshiek County Conservation, Luther College, Oneota Community Food Co-op, and the Iowa Waste Reduction Center. In the end, the community will see local food systems and food recovery networks improved as the food waste reduction solutions benefit farmers and communities.
As so many other city and state projects everywhere learned, the pandemic and resulting quarantine changed projected dates, both of beginning and completion.
“We found out at the beginning of February 2022 that we were awarded the grant, but we were actually able to start the implementation in April of this year,” said Bril. Nothing will stop them now, though, he went on to say. “Our pilot project has three primary objectives. We want to utilize education and outreach to increase residential composting and provide supplies for home composting. We plan to partner with local businesses and institutions to collect food waste, to incorporate into the city’s existing compost production process. We intend to modify the city’s existing composting process to produce a higher quality of compost for distribution to area producers.
So far, they have been working on Objective No. 1.
“We have held four different trainings for residents over the past month. At each training, residents learn about the benefits of home composting and how to develop a productive compost pile. Because of the USDA funding, we have been able to give each resident who attends the training a free backyard composter for them to install at their homes. Since our project really just started, we have not otherwise been impacted significantly by the pandemic.”
Composting and green projects
Although the plan is a big project, one might expect the community response to be a good one in a farm community. Bril enthusiastically noted that this was the case in Decorah. “The community response has been great. We have purposefully kept our training sessions small, about 20 people each, so it feels more personal. But each one has been at near capacity. We are expecting to have to schedule more trainings than initially planned, based on the interest we are receiving thus far.”
He added that he wouldn’t go so far as to say that it is commonplace, but that Decorah probably has a higher-than-average percentage of home composters already. Based on the participation they see in the county’s recycling program, this is not overly surprising, he said. However, the county landfill still receives a lot of food waste on a daily basis, so there are still opportunities to get more folks involved in home composting.
“We are hoping a successful pilot project will allow us to implement community composting at a larger scale, as we think it will be very well received by the community. The biggest and most immediate benefit will be a reduction in solid waste delivered to our landfill. Based on a statewide study, it is estimated that our community of just over 7,500 people contributes over 8,000 pounds of food waste per day to the landfill. If the majority of residents were able to compost even a portion of that, we could see major reductions in a relatively short period of time.”
And it’s no surprise the city also has several other green projects underway.” said Bril.
“We recently installed solar panels on one of our city buildings, and in an empty lot to our city campground. We have received funding to install several stormwater best management practices, such as a constructed wetland, bioretention cell, oxbow wetlands, infiltration basin, and native prairie plants. Just last summer, we installed the first two city-owned electric vehicle chargers downtown and recently received a grant to install another EV charger in our business district. Our wastewater treatment plant will be completing a major renovation this year, with the primary goal of improving energy efficiency by replacing outdated equipment.”
There are city gardens, too, although they have not yet been incorporated into the community composting project because the focus to date, according to Bril, has been developing partnerships with larger producers such as grocery stores, schools, restaurants and so on. “But I imagine if we can demonstrate a successful pilot project, the city gardens will certainly be part of a permanent program in the future.” “I would strongly encourage any community who is thinking about a community composting project to consider this USDA funding opportunity first,” said Bril. “It is a great opportunity for a ‘test run’ on what could work in their community. A pilot project will allow you to make connections with community partners, identify logistical challenges, and obtain feedback from residents. I would start by checking out the USDA’s Composting and Food Waste reduction website – https://www.usda.gov/topics/urban/coop-agreements – to learn about the grant opportunity, and also see a list of the projects that have been awarded over the past few years.”