Composting for Food Sovereignty in Atlanta

Date: 21 Mar 2023 | posted in: Composting | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

What role does composting play in subverting barriers to local food sovereignty? In this episode of the Composting for Community Podcast, we are joined by Khari Diop, an environmental educator, food security activist, and fifth-generation food grower from Atlanta. Khari is the founder and CEO of ThinkGreen Inc. and the Community CompostLearning Lab Manager at the Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture. Khari shares wisdom gleaned from years serving his community by designing, building, and supporting gardens and composting systems at dozens of sites around Atlanta.

We talk about: 

  • How intentionally designed composting sites can aid communities in overcoming barriers to food sovereignty by engaging people in the food system and regenerating soil for food production.
  • The importance of access to healthy, nutritious and culturally-relevant foods to a community’s self-determination.
  • How key investments in equipment, infrastructure, and community relationships can maximize the efficiency and impact of a community or on-farm composting site.
  • How impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the food system highlighted the need for localized systems of support.

“I think we have to be hypervigilant in ensuring that we are providing the best nutrition for ourselves, and for our children, and for our families and each other. I think if we can get to the point where we can do that on scale, then a huge pressure will be lifted off of the shoulders, and the backs, and the minds of folks. Freeing them up to figure out the next step in our evolution as a nation within a nation.”


“One of the things my grandfather used to say was…’they aren’t making any more land’…. But we do have the ability, I think, to participate in that creation process of making new land….through composting”

Khari Diop

Linda Bilsens Brolis: Across the country, the community composting movement is growing. Small scale composting provides communities immediate opportunities for reducing waste, improving local soil, creating jobs, and fighting climate change. You’re listening to the Composting for Community Podcast, where we’ll bring you stories from the people doing this work on the ground and in the soil.
Welcome back to the Composting for Community Podcast. I’m Linda Bilsens Brolis of ILSR’s composting initiative, and in this episode, I talk to Khari Diop, a fifth generation grower from Atlanta, who’s the founder and CEO of Think Green Incorporated, a community benefit organization that connects people to the planet by redefining green space with purposeful, creative restoration and design. He’s had a hand in cultivating dozens of gardens and green spaces around Atlanta. He’s also the Community Compost Learning Lab manager at the Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture, which is a longstanding Atlanta institution that trains farmers and grows fresh produce for the community.
We talk about his evolution from a school garden educator to a farm scale, composting system designer and operator, and how composting bolsters the local food system and contributes to his mission to advance food sovereignty in his community. Let’s tune in. Hello, folks. I’m joined now by Khari Diop in Atlanta. Say hello, Khari.
Khari Diop: Hello, Khari.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Or, say hello to our listeners.
Khari Diop: What’s up everybody? How y’all doing?
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Let’s begin with you telling us about yourself, your work, and your community in Atlanta.
Khari Diop: Okay. My name’s Khari Diop. I’m 46. Father of three, with one on the way. I’m a Georgia native. Grew up in Southwest Atlanta, where I still primarily work in a community that I was raised in. I’m a fifth-generation grower. I’m an environmental educator, a community garden evangelist, a food security activist, and I’m the CEO of Think Green Inc.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Wow. What a great introduction for yourself. Congratulations, I didn’t know that.
Khari Diop: Yeah, thank you.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Fourth one on the way. How does composting fit into your work?
Khari Diop: I guess I can start from the beginning. Much of my early work was in community and school garden, like support, and gardener education. Later, kind of got into garden design and build. For the last few years, I’ve been focusing heavy on small scale, kind of farm scale, community composting activities. A huge kind of, I guess, impetus of that was introducing the compost knox system to Atlanta. Probably 2016, 2017, through the Food Well Alliance, who has now built dozens in community gardens all throughout the city. Then in 2021, I heard about a certification course in a compost facility operations management that was being offered through the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. It was led by James McSweeney of Compost Technical Services. This was kind of followed up after attending the Community Composting Conference, so when I heard about it, I jumped in the course, completed it. Once I was done with it, I volunteered to take over our community composting lab at Truly Living Well. Been doing that since 2021.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Awesome. Thanks for that rundown. That reminds me, I remember the first time that I heard your name was back in 2016. We partnered with Terra Nova Compost, with the support of the Food Well Alliance, to do a replication of our neighborhood soil builders composter training program. It was the first time I’d ever been to Atlanta.
Khari Diop: Yeah. That was a dope organization I formed with Corrine Coe, a brother named Eugene Alala, another farmer named Chris, and Terra Nova. I think it’s still in existence. Corrine is doing her thing.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: The Atlanta community gave us a very warm welcome, so it was super cool to see that happen.
Khari Diop: Yep. It was amazing.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: I know you’re going to be presenting at the Cultivating Community Composting Forum in January, which is happening in conjunction with the US Composting Councils Conference and Trade Show. I know you’re going to be talking about some of the composting systems that you’ve managed there, but I was hoping you could give us a brief overview of the system that’s in play at Truly Living Well.
Khari Diop: Sure. We run a three bay ASP system, and then we process between three and four tons of green material per week. Primarily, it’s Georgia-grown collards coals from our local commercial farmer’s market mixed with wood chips, and those are brought in by local arborists and tree trimmers. Last year, we processed about 200 tons, and this year, we’re probably on track to do about 220. Most of what we produce goes to the farm at Truly Living Well, and a lot of it also goes to support local growers.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Well, congratulations. That’s a lot of material y’all are processing.
Khari Diop: It’s definitely not a light lift, and I’m a part-time person. Up until recently, it’s been 10 hours a week for me, so lot to do with a little bit of time. Recently, through the support of the Food Well Alliance, we’ve been able to hire an assistant. A brother named Walter has been super amazing help.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: That’s great to hear. Congratulations on that. I’ve been seeing, on your Instagram, a hex spin design that you’ve been working on. Can you talk about that?
Khari Diop: Yeah. The hex spin was inspired by Peter Moon and the O2Compost team. I learned about them, and saw one on one of the ILSR webinars and was immediately won over. It’s a two-bed ASP system. It’s replacing a compost knox that had kind of gone in disuse and disappeared at a local food forest, so I had the pleasure of being able to build that original system with a group of young folks who were going through a urban agriculture and forestry training program. Then full circle, to be asked to come back and rebuild a system was an honor. Hopefully, this one should be a little bit more easy to operate for the folks who community garden in the space.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Right, yeah. We’ll definitely include links to the Compost Knox design. It’s put out by Urban Farm Plans. Then I’ll definitely link to pictures of the hex spin system that you’re working on, just in case there’s anybody listening that doesn’t know what an ASP system is.
Khari Diop: Aerated static pile, meaning we use mechanical systems, machines. In our case, blowers. Bouncy house blowers to force air through the system. We have four-inch PVC pipes that are… With the hex bin, they are underneath the bins, so to speak, and with the base system at the Community Composting Lab, they’re actually running the length of the pile.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Very cool. Just basically, it keeps air flowing to help keep the compost cooking.
Khari Diop: Yeah, yeah. I mean what it does, it’s kind of a labor saving force multiplier. It removes the necessity of physically turning a pile by forcing air through the system, feeding all of those beneficial organisms.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Beneficial for volunteer-run projects or where projects just don’t have enough labor, so very cool. I look forward to following that. As I think you know, ILSR promotes composting for the many social, economic, and environmental benefits it provides to communities. Have you seen any of these benefits in your work?
Khari Diop: Really, all of them. The building of community around composting is a major one. Here in Atlanta, we have a hugely successful business called Compost Now that employs a lot of folks. One of the businesses that also drops compostables at the Community Composting Lab is [inaudible 00:08:00]. They’re a food reclamation organizations doing amazing work here in Atlanta as well. I’m on the environmental side. The diversion that we are doing is major, and Compost Now is probably doing 10 times what our numbers are. A lot of their amendment that is produced is going towards local growers and farms. A majority of what we produce in the lab is going directly into the beds at TLW, and being used to produce amazing organic veggies that are going directly to the surrounding community. All of those pieces are bolstered and enhanced by community composting.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Very cool. That leads me into my next question. You’re featured in this great video series called The Seeds of Resilience that the Food Well Alliance put out a couple years ago. It’s great. You talk about the ability to grow food as being a key, if not the key, to freedom. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that.
Khari Diop: Well, one of the markers of maturity of an individual is the ability to provide for oneself, provide our basic needs. I think that the mark of maturity for a community and for people is that same ability. Specifically, my community. African Americans, black folks. We need that, and have needed that since time immemorial, especially since our time on this side of the water. I think we have to be hypervigilant in ensuring that we are providing the best nutrition for ourselves, and for our children, and for our families and each other. I think if we can get to the point where we can do that on scale, then a huge pressure will be lifted off of the shoulders, and the backs, and the minds of folks. Freeing them up to figure out the next step in our evolution as a nation within a nation. Yeah, I’m all about that.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: My definition of community self-reliance, definitely being able to grow your own food features very prominently. That’s actually what brought me to composting as well. I’ve heard of food sovereignty being defined as the right of people to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agricultural systems. It sounds very similar to what you’re talking about. That was a definition from La Via Campesina, which is the International Peasants Movement that started in the nineties. From your perspective, and in your experience, what are the biggest barriers to food sovereignty in your community?
Khari Diop: I think the biggest barrier for us is the lack of imagination. I think part of that is the failure of our educational system to really empower folks for radical independent thinking and being. I think secondly is lack of access to land. A big part of that is due to systematic divestment of our people through crooked and unscrupulous dealings by those in power, and sometimes, through straight-up violence and theft. I think thirdly is the lack of access to capital through intentional disinvestment, and sometimes even through misappropriation of funds. Organizations that are supposedly put in place to increase food security that end up with bloated office staff and misdirected bandaid solutions for their funding priorities. I think those are a few in bullet form, but we could go deeper into it, of course.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Yeah. Those are some structural issues that definitely need addressing. I think that what excites me about composting is its something that can be done by anyone, pretty much under any circumstances, to help kind of chip away at some of those issues. The community composting movement, especially really going out and addressing of the communities that these projects are serving, and getting that information, that knowledge out there. That composting is something that you can start doing now. You don’t need a lot of money, you don’t need a lot of infrastructure to get started.
Khari Diop: Reconnecting people with the food system just in general. I think we’re all super aware of it when our forks hit the plate, but on that back end, what are we doing with what doesn’t make it into our stomachs? I think that reconnecting people with that responsibility to figure out what we’re going to do with what it is that we don’t use, and then redirecting that to spaces that are producing what it is that we need. It goes hand in hand with the whole recycling movement and greater consciousness about our responsibilities as humans on the planet.
I think composting is the perfect vehicle for making those connections with people to the planet. One of the things my grandfather used to say was, “They aren’t making any more land. They ain’t making no new land.” But we do have the ability, I think, to participate in that creation process of making new land and new earth. That’s where we got the term Terra Nova from, through composting. I love to see it, and more and more of it.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Yeah. We have to steward what we have, because it is not an infinite resource. It is very much finite.
We’ll be right back after a really short break. Thanks for listening to this episode of the Composting for Community Podcast. If you’re enjoying it, please consider supporting our work with a donation by going to Your donations make this show and all the work we do here at ILSR possible. Visit to make your contribution today. Any amount is sincerely appreciated. If you’re looking for other ways to support us, consider rating or leaving a review of the show wherever you listen to your podcast. These reviews help us reach a wider audience. Thanks again for listening, and now back to the show.
I resonate with the mission of Think Green Incorporated. Your mission as I read it.
Khari Diop: Yeah. We actually started off as a technology. I had a technology focus. I wanted to be able to really get a handle on the data that was flowing through community garden spaces, but we found that there was a niche that was unfilled in support for these spaces. The impetus and genesis of Think Green was really as a technology data company, so we’re hoping to get back more towards that in 2023.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Cool. That leads into my next question, but before I get to that, do you know how many green spaces, or community gardens, or community spaces you’ve been involved in stewarding?
Khari Diop: I would say that I probably had a hand in a couple of dozen, probably 30 or 40. Back in 2020, during the height of the pandemic, the Food Well Alliance asked me to serve as a community garden support person. Because they couldn’t take large groups of volunteers in, they would send me in with a BCS tiller to make sure that the spaces were taken care of and were able to produce food, so that allowed me to touch so many growing spaces I lost count.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Wow, that’s quite an accomplishment. What a great community service at the height of the pandemic. I mean, the food system pretty much broke down. Thank you for helping.
Khari Diop: It was great to be a part of it. Every day, I would wake up and feel like I was really contributing.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Very cool and very necessary. What a wake-up call to see the weaknesses in the system. A huge system that… Again, out of sight, out of mind. You can take for granted when it’s working more or less the way it’s intended to, but then you get a big stressor like the pandemic and it just shines a bright light on some of those weaknesses.
Khari Diop: Yeah, it was a huge shock. I mean, I think we all saw how fragile it is. I think many of us have kind of accepted the realization that if these trucks stop running, or if the price of fuel gets exorbitantly high, then things are going to be majorly disrupted, but I think we saw that firsthand thanks to COVID-19.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: It really just exacerbated weaknesses, right? The food system works well for certain people, but the whole mission to support food sovereignty gets at the point that it doesn’t work for everybody, even when it’s working as intended.
Khari Diop: Exactly, which is why ILSR’s work is so important in building up that local self-reliance. That’s what I’m all about, so I completely align with you all’s mission.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Well, thank you. You are the one that’s out there in the field doing it, so it’s such an honor and a pleasure to get to work with people like you. But back to the question that you perfectly were leading into earlier, what are some of your goals for the coming year?
Khari Diop: Yeah. Like I said, a greater emphasis on data collection and analysis. We want to be able to measure and increase our efficiency. We want to be able to grow the scientific capacity of the lab to provide in-depth analysis of our product, and also to be able to provide that service to local growers and gardens. We’re also going to be piloting some restaurant and residential waste diversion programs that we received some funding for. I’ll probably be building a few more hex spins, so we’ll see how this first one works out. I got a training for the gardeners, folks who visit the food forest, coming up this Friday. So yeah, we’ll see how that goes.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Very cool, so you’re going to get really good at building that system.
Khari Diop: Yeah.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Yeah. You’re going to have to, I think, give a presentation on it at some point in the Community Composter Coalition peer-learning community.
Khari Diop: Most definitely. I tried to figure out how to do it in the most economical way possible.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: I can’t wait to follow that thread. I guess kind of as a closing question, do you have any advice or lessons learned that you would like to share with composters that are just getting started, or any other resources that you might recommend that have inspired you on your path?
Khari Diop: I would say, work with what you got. When I first came on as the manager of the Community Composting Lab, we were completely volunteer driven. From accepting all of the inputs to building the piles. Then we were lucky enough to get a little mini Bobcat skid steer, which, oh, my God, I thought we were cooking with grease, cooking with gas. Once we got that thing, it was great. Then I quickly saw that taking two hours to move a pile even with that was too long, so we were able to purchase a Kubota tractor, which allowed us to grow by leaps and strides. To getting things done and becoming more efficient.
But I would say work with what you got, and keep it manageable, and build relationships with folks in the community who can provide resources. At one point, one of the most difficult things for us was getting enough brown material, enough carbon inputs, so we had to kind of reestablish our relationship with the local arborists and tree trimmers. Once we did that, you know what I mean? Some of y’all will know that, at a certain point, you got to tell them to stop, which is a good thing. Try to build those local relationships.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Are there any additional resources that have inspired you along your path in this work?
Khari Diop: Yeah. James McSweeney, most definitely. He, I think, played a pivotal part in designing the Community Composting Lab. Like I said, Peter Moon with O2Compost. When I saw their hexagonal design for a bin, and then started working through the math, I was like, “Why isn’t everybody doing this? Just because of the space-saving and efficiency aspect.” Yeah. I would say they’ve definitely been great resources. James got that great book. Also, one of my early mentors in composting Rashid Nuri, who’s the founder of Truly Living Well. He kind of helped me get in touch with the spiritual nature and aspect of compost and organic recycling.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Great. I know James McSweeney’s community scale composting systems. We’ll definitely link to that. I know Erik Martig with Conscious Compost. I believe he designed at least one iteration of the Truly Living Well system, but I know James was really helpful in thinking through the throughput of the system and all that.
Khari Diop: You know some of the history, you know it.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: I do a little bit. I’ve had the great pleasure of collaborating with Truly Living Well, and Food Well Alliance, and other Atlanta folks. I consider it a pleasure and an honor. I just think, like to summarize the lessons you shared, that knowing what your limitations are, scaling up slowly, and relationships and communication. It takes an ecosystem, for sure, to make these things happen.
Khari Diop: You said it so well. Thank you.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Thanks. Well, I was following you, so you made it easy for me. All right. Well, Khari, it was a great pleasure to chat with you just now. Thank you so much for joining us.
Khari Diop: It was my pleasure as well. I hope this helps.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: It definitely did, so I look forward to sharing this with our listeners.
Khari Diop: Most definitely. If people have any questions, feel free to give out my information. People can email me, call me. I love to talk about this stuff.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Thank you for being so generous with yourself, and your knowledge and experience. Take care, and we will see you.
Thanks for listening to this episode of the Composting for Community Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This episode was produced by Drew Birschbach and ILSR’S composting team. Our theme music is I Don’t Know from Grapes. Be sure to check out the rest of the ILSR podcast family, including Building Local Power, Local Energy Rules, and Community Broadband Bits at


Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Android | RSS

Listen to this episode, then check out more episodes of the Composting for Community Podcast.

Follow the Institute for Local Self-Reliance on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. For monthly updates on our work, sign up for our ILSR general newsletter.

If you have show ideas or comments, please email us at

Audio Credit: I Dunno by Grapes. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

Image Credit: Khari Diop and Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture

Avatar photo
Follow Linda Bilsens Brolis:
Linda Bilsens Brolis

Linda is the Senior Program Manager for ILSR’s Composting for Community Initiative and Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders Composter Training Program.