Local Compost Enterprise Cultivates a Just and Healthy Community (Episode 102)

Date: 11 Jun 2020 | posted in: Building Local Power, Composting | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

In this episode of Building Local Power, host Jess Del Fiacco is joined by Brenda Platt, Director of ILSR’s Composting for Community Initiative, and Kesiah Bascom, founder of OffBeet Compost. OffBeet is a small-scale, community-minded food scrap collection and composting enterprise in the Lowell, Mass., area. Kesiah and her team have an ongoing mission to connect environmental goals with social justice values.

Jess, Kesiah, and Brenda discuss:

  • Kesiah’s background in the food justice movement, the foundation of which is that everyone has the right to have access to healthy, nutritious, and culturally appropriate food.
  • Why Kesiah decided to establish OffBeet Compost, and how she’s prioritized contributing to a just and sustainable local economy as the business has grown.
  • The legacy of environmental racism, and the role community composting can play in improving everything from local soils to public health.
  • Kesiah’s plans for the future of OffBeet and how listeners can support similar efforts in their own communities.

 

“It’s not simply to make money, but it’s also a type of business that has, hopefully, strong impacts on the environment as we’re reinvesting the compost that we’re making back into local soils to help grow local food, to provide fresh, affordable, culturally appropriate food to members of the community.”

 

Covid-19’s Unequal Effects In Massachusetts: Remedying The Legacy Of Environmental Injustice & Building Climate Resilience, released by the Office of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey in May 2020

NYC Climate Justice Agenda 2020: A Critical Decade for Climate, Equity, and Health, released by NYC Environmental Justice Alliance in April 2020. This agenda devotes 11 pages to tackling emissions from waste and building equitable solutions that include support for local, low-emission, high quality organics processing. (See pages 18-28.)

Community Composter Coalition members that integrate an equity and social justice mission into their work:

 

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Jess Del Fiacco: Hello, and welcome to Building Local Power, a podcast dedicated to thought provoking conversations about how we can challenge corporate monopolies and expand the power of people to shape their own future. I’m Jess Del Fiacco, host of Building Local Power and communications manager here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. For 45 years, ILSR has worked to build thriving, equitable communities where power, wealth, and accountability remain in local hands. Today, I am excited to be joined by Brenda Platt my colleague at ILSR who directs our composting work as well as Kesiah Bascom who runs OffBeet Compost in the Lowell Massachusetts area. Kesiah also serves on the steering committee for the National Community Composter Coalition. Welcome, guys.
Kesiah Bascom: Thank you.
Brenda Platt: Thank you.
Jess Del Fiacco: And I think I’m going to put Brenda on the spot first. Brenda, can you talk a little bit about why we wanted to have this conversation today?
Brenda Platt: Yeah. We’re in this moment of a horrible confluence of a deadly disease, ongoing police brutality and systemic racial problems and climate destruction, which is not going away. And all of these are impacting society and public health and disproportionately people, businesses and communities of color. So, I wanted to start off, Kesiah just asking you, how are you mentally and emotionally at this time?
Kesiah Bascom: Yeah. Thank you for that question. “How are you at this point in life?” Is such a loaded question and it’s hard to say. Last week was really hard. I think with just watching the current political conversations that were happening, I personally, as a black woman, have felt attacked by our government.
Kesiah Bascom: And so, I think it’s been really hard to move forward, and as a business owner, every day, the ongoing process of dealing with COVID-19 and making sure that my team feels safe and protected, that my community feels informed and feel safe and protected and just that we can keep business running. It’s hard to balance that with my own personal emotions. And I think, luckily I have people in my life who I can talk to about this and I have a support team of a board of advisors for OffBeet Compost who is stepping up to help out. And I think, this week, I feel like I have created a clear path forward for OffBeet and for myself. Yeah. I think day-to-day, if you are in any way aware of what’s going on, it can hit you differently. It can hit hard. So, thanks for that question.
Jess Del Fiacco: I know we’re putting one more thing on your to-do list just by asking you to talk to us today. So, I really, really appreciate you taking the time.
Brenda Platt: Yeah. And it is an exhausting time, no doubt about it. I was drawn to talking to you at this particular time because OffBeet’s mission to connect environmental goals with social justice values. And I know from your website, OffBeet Compost is, committed to creating, “A resilient green economy in greater Lowell that generates local green jobs, empowers community members to be land stewards and contributes to an environmentally sustainable and just landscape.” Let’s back up. Tell us about OffBeet Compost, how you’re doing this, what this means to you. And really it just seems so important and vital now, even more than before.
Kesiah Bascom: Thank you. Yeah. In so many ways, those are words of aspiration and we strive for it every day. Some things we’ve succeeded in it and some things we haven’t, but I think I have to talk about my background. I entered the realm of food justice and food access at a younger age. I discovered the nonprofit in Boston called The Food Project, where they were doing a wonderful job of merging youth development with urban agriculture and using food as a really wonderful conversation to bring communities together across cultures. And I think, working at that right after I graduated from college really helped me see how powerful the tool of food is and having those types of conversations. Going forward, I’ve worked in a lot of different nonprofits that use food as a connective power and conversation to talk about food injustice and food access, which is an issue that’s really important to advocate for, especially in urban communities, where a lot of times they haven’t had the same opportunities and access, quite often intentionally, to fresh affordable, culturally appropriate food.
Kesiah Bascom: So, that’s my background and then I was doing that work in the nonprofit space, mostly, which has helped me learn and grow so much and also comes with its own set of frustrations because nonprofits are in themselves an industrial complex. And I’m sure a lot of people have been hearing terms around systemic racism. And I think in every aspect of our lives, that’s something that we encounter, but personally having been in that space for a long time, I was really feeling the weight of it and wanted to branch off into my own thing. Understanding that food is still really important to me and where I have the most knowledge. So, I came up with a composting company, OffBeet Compost. So, we collect household, restaurant, and business food scraps and are diverting them from landfills and incinerators.
Kesiah Bascom: And we started by just composting all of it ourselves, but then grew pretty quickly, much more quickly than anticipated. And so, now we bring it to different places where they’re composting it and we’re working to create a little, small educational composting site, but the idea is, this is a social enterprise, so we’re making money off of OffBeet Compost, members pay to be a part of the program. We’re trying to be really mindful and intentional about the growth of this type of business. It’s not simply to make money, but it’s also a type of business that has, hopefully, strong impacts on the environment as we’re reinvesting the compost that we’re making back into local soils to help grow local food, to provide fresh, affordable, culturally appropriate food to members of the community. We’re trying to be really intentional about how we’re structuring the business.
Kesiah Bascom: So, the folks that we employ, we want to pay them more than a living wage. That’s really important. And then, as I mentioned, we have a board of advisors and I’ve tried to be really intentional about making that reflective of the diverse community that we have here. So, I think, it’s all of that, and at the same time a business, so we’re doing what we can. But yeah, it’s definitely to have a mission in place, I think, helps every day frame the work that we’re doing and strive to make real change in our community.
Jess Del Fiacco: Have you found that there, or did you find, and sorry for the pun, but was there an appetite for this business already in your community or do you have to do a lot of outreach and education to engage community members and encourage them to join the program or participate?
Kesiah Bascom: Yeah. Interesting question. I think, in Massachusetts, Brenda you can probably attest to this, there are already a decent amount of companies who are doing this work, so it wasn’t necessarily a foreign idea. And I think there were people in the region who were looking for a service that was similar to the ones that were offered in other parts of Mass that weren’t in the Lowell area yet. And then, also because my previous job had been as community program manager at an organization called Mill City Grows, I’ll plug them. So, that job put me in really good contact with a lot of other community organizations. So, when I launched OffBeet, I felt very fortunate to have a lot of people in the community who helped spread the word. Yeah. It’s definitely an ongoing process of outreach and spreading the information. A lot of it happens through word of mouth.
Brenda Platt: Well, talking about puns, we might just clarify to our listeners, OffBeet is spelled O-F-F-B-E-E-T. A play on off beat, so I don’t know if there’s anything you want to say about your name?
Kesiah Bascom: Yeah. Thanks for calling that to attention. I have always wanted to have something be OffBeet, honestly, I thought I was going to have an OffBeet sandwich shop at one point [inaudible 00:09:17]. So, just that is so aligned with who I am as a person, but I also do … It made so much sense to attach it to composting because I think the people who are signing up to this program are offbeat. They’re at the forefront of something that’s really important, that as a society globally, we should be embracing. And historically, composting used to be a thing that people were doing and somehow we moved away from that, into disposing of things in landfills and incinerators. And it’s going to take these people who are at the forefront and thinking about climate change and the future, to move this and advocate for it so that it’s more mainstream, but it’s still … You tell some people about it and they think it’s wild, you know?
Brenda Platt: Yeah. You mentioned about just Massachusetts and there are other community-engaged, community-oriented food scrap collectors and composters in Massachusetts. And one of the reasons is that the state has banned disposal of food scraps from large-scale fruit scrap generators, so it’s given rise to new businesses. And I know CERO in Boston, is a worker owned cooperative of members from the Latinx and African American community who saw that there’s investment being made in food scrap collection and composting and saying, “We should have [investment] that’s community engaged, builds community equity.” And your name is fabulous and I am so honored to be working with so many community scale composters all across the country and they just nailed the names.
Brenda Platt: I mean, we have Soilful City in DC, working in underserved communities and linking it to growing food, like you are, and producing hot pepper sauce and Common Ground Compost in New York, lower Manhattan and Fertile Ground Compost is a cooperative in Oklahoma that is worker owned. There’s just so many community scale operations, like yours, that are really doing food systems thinking, creating local jobs, getting it back into local soil. So, one of the things that the coalition is promoting is really this notion of a decentralized diverse infrastructure that builds community equity. How do you see your operation fitting in with what else is going on in the state and waste management, how you’re countering that, I don’t know, the corporate concentration in the waste management sector and building community equity and jobs, which is so critical now?
Kesiah Bascom: Yeah. I think, well, the area that I live in, it’s pretty cool how everybody works together to uplift and support one another. So, I think it’s interesting to see the funding trends that go on, that pass through my inbox, and then to go to a huge conference where there’s these huge waste haulers who are there, who are talking about the big new piece of equipment, or whatever, to deal with all of this. And I think in some way, there’s a role there it’s important because there’s so much waste to go around. And at the same time, you also see the conversations around how we’re struggling right now, as a nation, with contamination and recycling and running out of space in landfills.
Kesiah Bascom: And I think, people are unfortunately really disconnected to where their waste is going and how it’s being disposed of. And it’s because of the large corporatized system that we’ve created, where we just throw something away and we don’t have to think about it again. And so, these small community scale composting operations or recycling operations are important because we are connecting with community members, and bringing it to the forefront of people’s minds, and making it feel like an accessible thing to think and talk about, and to tackle as an issue. I also think, I don’t know a lot about it, but going into a lot of those conference spaces, I often find myself as the only black woman there, or one of the few. And so, I think these community scale things are more thoughtful in creating spaces for people of color and just having a team that’s more reflective of the people around them.
Jess Del Fiacco: Thanks for tuning in to this episode of Building Local Power. Typically, this is the point in the conversation where I’d ask you to donate to ILSR, but this week, I hope you’ll take the time to seek out black-led organizations in your community and offer them whatever support you can. If you’re not sure how to get started, make a donation at m4bl.org to support the movement for black lives and check out the other mutual aid resources we’ve included on the show page for this episode. Thank you.
Jess Del Fiacco: I was just thinking about all the ripple effects that come out of your business. People getting more engaged with where their food’s coming from, where their waste is … It affects everything and wanted to bring up something Brenda shared with us this morning, which was a report recently that came out from the Massachusetts Attorney General. And the quote that I have is, “Science has drawn the connection between long-term environmental pollution and mortality rates for COVID-19.” So, I’m just wondering if your thinking has evolved since you’ve started OffBeet, or if you’ve noticed the trend towards people recognizing the role of community composting in this broader context, affecting everything from soil quality to public health?
Kesiah Bascom: Well, right now, honestly, a lot more people are signing up in this moment, this past week, a lot more people are signing up for OffBeet Compost because I think people are more willing now because of what has happened to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, so many people before, people are willing now to see that there’s a real issue, on so many levels. And there’s racial injustice, there’s social injustice, there’s environmental injustice. So, I think that they are looking for solutions that are beyond … Protesting is so important, but solutions that will continue to tear down the systemic racism that we have in place here. And so, I think people now are starting to make those connections, again, I would say the folks who have typically signed up for OffBeet are people who were, I think, already in some ways making that connection. And now, it’s a conversation that’s a little bit larger, but I think it’s been slow. I don’t know, Brenda, you’ve been in this for a long time, so I bet you have an opinion on that too.
Brenda Platt: Yeah. It’s interesting, this report that was released in May by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, and that she recognized that communities of color in Massachusetts have the highest rates of COVID-19 infection, but she singled out another culprit, which was air pollution, and particulates and contribute to respiratory diseases and whatnot. So, we have a long history of not only environmental racism in the US, but that environmental racism has been tied to, has been a problem forever in the waste management industry. I mean, incinerators in urban areas, where do they get cited? In areas of least, “political resistance,” predominantly underserved communities of color. And where we’ve seen in Detroit and Baltimore where there’s asthma and respiratory issues, and these communities are living in the shadows of these incinerators.
Brenda Platt: And we’re saying, local government facing these massive budget crises now due to the COVID-19 and so what are they doing? New York City is canceling its composting, particularly it’s community composting programs, but there’s always money to build a wastewater treatment plant or to allow unlimited trash at curbside for the monopoly corporate trash companies to collect. And there’s so much discussion now about follow the money and redirect investment into, whether it’s law enforcement or trash as usual and disposal and pollution, we need to, this is the time to fight for health for the world, and livable and just world we want. And to redirect that investment into enterprises, businesses, regenerative green economy, that’s going to take the waste that would pollute these communities. And instead convert it into things like composting, in the case of what we’re talking about, like what you’re doing, to grow more food, to feed people and address these other multiple issues, like food sovereignty and healthy food access and sequestering carbon.
Brenda Platt: So, I just think your work is, and your business, and your vision, is such an important piece of the landscape now that what can people do to support OffBeet Compost and other community scale? Is there an action that people can do to make this case to their local and state elected officials and decision makers now, what should we be fighting for in particular? Do you have anything that comes to mind?
Kesiah Bascom: Yeah. I mean, people just need to find companies like ours in their communities and sign up to support us. And then, it’s true, I think pushing it … I don’t know how municipals are right now, but for the longest time we’ve been really trying to push somehow getting some kind of contract with the cities to make this program as accessible as possible. When COVID-19 happened, we shut down for a little bit, and then we reopened with simply some remote drop-offs to help keep drivers off the road and minimize the amount of things that we were touching. And that was something we were reaching out to different municipals and community members to see if we could set up drop-off stations in those towns. And so, that’s expanded, I think. Yeah, just support and listen and learn and get to know folks who are already doing this in the community and try to help them.
Jess Del Fiacco: This is a question for both of you about, about all this building adjust and sustainable economy, how we can do that and what solutions we have. You’ve both developed and advocated for the social justice principles for community composting, one, or both of you would like to talk about those a little bit, and then how they could be used by other organizations, other businesses, even beyond composting, maybe?
Brenda Platt: Well, I’d be happy to start, Kesiah, I think at the Community Composter Coalition that the Institute helps convene, we have a social justice working group that predated Kesiah joining our steering committee, and that had been working on social justice principles, particularly for community composting. And of course, they’re still a work in progress and we welcome people’s feedback and there will be a link to the podcast site, with a link to these principles so people can read them, but there’s 10 of them. And I don’t know, Kesiah, if any of these speak to you more directly or to your work with OffBeet or anything you want to say about them? But they do range from acknowledging the ways in which we all are privileged and understanding the mechanisms that perpetuate oppression such as attitudes, bias and behaviors, and creating opportunities for respectful employment. So, they run the gamut, but Kesiah, any thoughts?
Kesiah Bascom: Yeah, so one of them, I think, it was talking about creating a safe space for diversity. So, I think that’s important to on all levels, make sure that, when you’re talking about inclusion and diversity, you’re not just hiring somebody on to fit a quota, but you’re recognizing that their background brings this whole new depth and importance and knowledge to the table that’s going to only help enrich the business or program that you have in place. And I think there was something on there that was also talking about even youth engagement and I think that is something that OffBeet can strive to do better too. We’ve tried to have folks come out and engage with the work we’re doing. We’ve gone to different schools and talked about what we’re doing and have internships. But I think, again, there’s a real opportunity there to work with a community and build bridges with the community that is our future. Thinking about this and talking about it is so important.
Brenda Platt: Yeah. I mean, the principle you’re referring to is principle number two, plant seeds for the future by engaging youth in the composting process. And one of the benefits of composting is it that it can be small scale and large scale and everything in between. And every school could be having a garden and teaching students and youth to integrate how compost and healthy soil’s important to growing local food. And we know that kids will tend to eat healthy food if they’re growing it themselves and have a hand in it. So, right now with schools closed and there’s probably never been a more important time to get kids doing hands-on activity and engaged, and there’s so much power with the youth right now in terms of protecting the climate and what they can do and food waste, in particular, and composting is something that youth can all be engaged in.
Brenda Platt: So, I couldn’t agree with you more about the need to … Not your work at OffBeet, that’s up to you of course, but just saying in general, a huge opportunity here to engage youth in the process and empower the next generation to lead in this space. And it’s been very exciting to learn about other members of our coalition that are really youth led and youth engaged enterprises like BK ROT in Brooklyn, New York is just one of them that’s amazing.
Jess Del Fiacco: You’ve mentioned that you’ve been thoughtfully expanding your business. Could you share a hope or a dream for OffBeet that you have?
Kesiah Bascom: Yeah. Well, so I love that you mentioned BK ROT because from the beginning they were my idols. I think it’s, again, like trying to blend that this is an enterprise, but it also has this social aspect to it, that’s really important. The dream for me has always been for OffBeet to have small community composting site, which we sort of started with, but we could have done it a lot better and we’re working towards that now. So, we finally have some space cleared in back of our office, where we’re going to be able to build out a composting site that people can come to and participate in. The dream is also to have a larger site, maybe a little bit outside the city where we can do a lot more large scale processing. But I think, that it’ll take time to build the infrastructure for that, but I’m just really excited in the next few months to build this composting site. I want to make it look as good as it can so that people can come and really feel and understand what we’re trying to do.
Brenda Platt: Yeah, that’s awesome. And if you’re a local government or just any activist listening today, contact your local government, urge them to invest in enterprises like OffBeet Compost, that build community equity, local jobs, resilient, healthy communities. There’s no reason to keep investing the millions, if not billions of dollars, in landfills and incinerators that destroy these materials, these community assets, rather than converting them into beneficial assets that build community and reduce pollution, protect the climate, address some of this environmental racism that’s been so pervasive in too many communities that contribute to so much of the ills in what’s going on.
Brenda Platt: So, community composting, it may seem like a small slice of what we can do right now, but it is foundational to so much of this work. And I don’t know how, if you’re working in any of the climate justice movements, Kesiah, but I know that in a lot of the work, it’s about reducing greenhouse gases locally. It’s about building the community equity and part of the platforms, almost always, involve waste in some way. And I can only imagine in Lowell, Massachusetts, it’s an issue, with wasting and the impact of pollution on those communities.
Jess Del Fiacco: I don’t think there was a question at the end of that, Brenda, but correct me if I’m wrong.
Brenda Platt: Yeah. [inaudible 00:26:23].
Jess Del Fiacco: Yeah. I do think, I mean, not to be flippant at all about anything that is currently happening and the amount of work that we all have ahead of us still, but I feel like there is, it’s a moment for hope and for movement towards real and lasting change for all of us, I think. So, it’s great to hear about the solutions that are happening out there, that are already successful and that we will only continue to grow and expand their impact. So, is there anything else either of you want to talk about today?
Kesiah Bascom: Brenda, you did a good job summing it up. It’s sometimes hard to focus on making change nationally or globally, but the things that you can do in your community have so much impact. And so, I appreciate it so much the Institute for Local Self-Reliance because you’re, think about this, yeah, we love, you have given OffBeet Compost a voice and have helped so many others. You’ve helped frame, in a way, how we can continue doing this work. And I think, the more that I grow with OffBeet Compost, the more important I realize that it is and because it’s local, and because it’s waste, and because there are other people in the community who actually care. So, yeah. Thank you.
Brenda Platt: It’s an honor for us to be able to lift up your work, Kesiah, so all the best, let us know how we can help.
Jess Del Fiacco: Thank you both so much for joining me today.
Kesiah Bascom: Thank you.
Brenda Platt: Thank you, Jess and Kesiah.
Jess Del Fiacco: Thank you for tuning in to this episode of the Building Local Power podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, you can find links to what we discussed today by going to ilsr.org and clicking on the show page for this episode. That’s ilsr.org. While you’re there, you can sign up for one of our many newsletters and connect with us on social media. You can help us out by reading this podcast and sharing it with your friends on iTunes or wherever you find your podcasts. This show was produced by Zach Freed, Sushmita Shrestha and me, Jess Del Fiacco. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL. For the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I’m Jess Del Fiacco, and I hope you’ll join us again in two weeks for the next episode of Building Local Power.

 

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Audio Credit: Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL Ft: Fourstones – Scomber (Bonus Track). Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

Photo Credit: Kesiah Bascom. Follow @OffBeetCompost on Instagram for more! 

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Jess Del Fiacco
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Jess Del Fiacco

Jessica Del Fiacco is the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Communications Manager. She works closely with all of our initiatives to build community power and combat monopolies, and she runs ILSR’s social media networks on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Jessica also produces the Institute’s Building Local Power podcast. Contact Jessica for media inquiries.

Jess Del Fiacco
Follow Jess Del Fiacco:
Jessica Del Fiacco is the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Communications Manager. She works closely with all of our initiatives to build community power and combat monopolies, and she runs ILSR’s social media networks on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Jessica also produces the Institute’s Building Local Power podcast. Contact Jessica for media inquiries.