Composting Will Help Flint Recover From Its Water Crisis

Date: 9 Aug 2016 | posted in: Composting, waste - composting, Waste to Wealth | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

It would be an understatement to say that Flint has been in the news a lot lately—one of the most recent stories has to do with a lapsed trash collection contract that left residents without service. The city still has a long road ahead before it can fully heal from the water contamination crisis that started in 2014: more than 8,000 children are thought to have been effected; 6 city officials have just been charged in connection; and Flint’s Mayor, Karen Weaver, used the podium at the recent Democratic National Convention to remind the nation that “The water is still not safe to drink or cook with from the tap”. Like many older industrial cities, Flint also has lead and other heavy metals in its soils, exacerbating the effects of the water crisis. As is often the case, low-income communities are more likely to be exposed to the highest concentrations.

In addition to lead contamination, Flint faces other challenges common to Rust Belt communities: declining industry, rising poverty, falling population, and rampant urban blight. Poverty is a problem throughout Michigan, with 1 in 10 people using emergency food programs. But, more than 40% of Flint’s population is considered to be poor and more than half is black—fueling claims that the water crisis is a clear case of environmental racism. Flint has more than 20,000 vacant lots resulting, at least in part, from the overwhelming loss of manufacturing jobs that once fueled the local economy. In order to prevent further damage to property values and to protect public health, these building must either be demolished or otherwise managed by the community.


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The 2016 Edible Flint Food Garden Tour featured 15 of the 300+ gardens that Edible Flint and other area organizations support


But, behind the devastating national headlines exists another Flint—one that embodies community self-reliance and neighborly collaboration. According to Terry McLean, Michigan State University Extension educator, “In my experience, Flint residents have a great track record of volunteerism, resilience and community pride. I feel that we will be a stronger community as a result of the recent water crisis.” Despite the hole that losses like that of the auto manufacturing industry have left, Flint residents are increasingly relying on a different, well-developed local skillset to put food on the table—and because of the work of a number of dedicated organizations and individuals, its fresh and healthy food. Michigan’s second largest industry is agriculture, and it is the second most diverse agricultural producer in the nation. Flint alone boasts more than 300 gardens, both personal and community.


Edible Flint Tour - Uni-Corn Garden      Edible Flint Tour - Uni-Corn

Uni-Corn Community Garden, featured in the Edible Flint Tour, is managed by a dedicated team of Master Gardeners and grows fresh produce for the surrounding sub-division and apartment complexes


On July 27th, ILSR staffers, Linda Bilsens and Joshua Etim visited with various food growing and access groups working in and around Flint to lay the groundwork for bringing ILSR’s Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders Composter Training Program to the area. ILSR staff were hosted by local friend and fellow community composting trainer and advocate, Amy Freeman, who coordinated meetings with some of the area’s most active and influential healthy food advocates and educators.


“This is a different Flint than the one you hear about on the news. These are not just poor people. There is good stuff happening here. It’s not a dire situation.”

-Erin Caudell, healthy food access advocate, farmer and co-owner of Flint-based The Local Grocer


Michigan State University is providing applied research, education and outreach to develop regionally integrated, sustainable food systems through its Center for Regional Food System. MSU professor of Horticultural Sciences, Dr. John Biernbaum, provides educational programs and technical assistance for small-scale organic farmers and manages the school’s on-site vermicomposting project. Michigan Food and Farming Systems connects beginning and historically underserved farmers (particularly women, veterans, and migrant populations) to each other and resource opportunities to cultivate social justice, environmental stewardship, and profitability. Edible Flint works to support Flint residents in growing and accessing healthy food in order to reconnect with the land and each other, including hosting an annual garden tour, which ILSR staff were happily able to attend during their visit!


MIFFS WIA high tunnel      MIFFS WIA Vermicompost

The Michigan Food and Farming Systems’ Women in Agriculture educational farm is hosted by the Genesys Health Systems’ at their Health Park Campus and features an in-ground vermicomposting system


The work of groups like these are critical to Flint’s road to recovery. Healthy foods, particularly those rich in Vitamin C and Calcium, are needed to minimize the impacts of lead on human health. Recent studies also show that there is limited absorption of lead when ingested with food. The impact of lead contamination is further minimized when soils are amended with compost—a practice that several studies have shown significantly dilute lead concentrations and reduces its availability. Increasing composting in Flint will have many benefits: healthier soils for food production, pollution mitigation for contaminated soils, more opportunities for neighbors to come together, and greater community self-reliance. ILSR is actively fundraising alongside its local partners to bring the benefits of the Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders program to Flint in 2017 and is thrilled to help support Flint’s homegrown revival.


MSU vermicomposting     

Last year, Michigan State University diverted 200,000 pounds of food scraps generated on-site through its low-tech, mid-scale vermicomposting system

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Linda Bilsens Brolis

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