ILSR Raises Up Urban Farms with Community Compost in Baltimore and D.C.

In 2014, ILSR’s Composting for Community Initiative launched the Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders (NSR) composter training program to teach community leaders how to compost on a small-scale for local food production and to adapt the rigor of commercial composting industry practices to the small scale. In addition to teaching how to avoid nuisance odors, pathogen problems, and unwanted critters; the NSR program demonstrates how to produce high-quality compost and enriching the community. Our goal is to increase the pool of community leaders who know how to manage well-operated community compost systems such as those at schools, community gardens, and urban farms.


Because urban agriculture largely takes place on vacant lots, sometimes on sites previously used for commercial or industrial uses, soil contamination is a potential concern. In addition, previously developed urban sites generally have compacted soils that have been depleted of nutrients and can no longer store water or sustain life. Fortunately, adding organic matter helps restore proper structure and function to soil, and compost is among the best ways to accomplish this. Compost has the added benefits of binding contaminants, making them less available to plants and people, as well as restoring biological activity that is essential to plant health. As a result, urban growers are increasingly requesting ILSR’s technical assistance on best practices for adding composting to their operations. The NSR program has been replicated in DC, Atlanta, and Baltimore, resulting in composting projects at dozens of gardens and farms.


Putting the concepts of the NSR program into action, ILSR is directly establishing a number of model community scale composting sites and operations in DC and Baltimore.


Real Food Farm, northeast Baltimore

In partnership with Civic Works’ Real Food Farm in Baltimore, we have established a model small-scale community-centered compost site. Real Food Farm grows fresh produce on 8 acres in and around the Clifton Park neighborhood in northeast Baltimore and serves two nearby food deserts. In 2016, we partnered with them to bring the NSR Master Composter program to Baltimore. ILSR built Real Food Farm a 5-bin rat-resistant composting system, which was central to the hands-on instruction during the six-week NSR course.  The system now provides the backbone for the composting cooperative, which is processing hundreds of pounds of food scraps from the farm and the cooperative’s members.

Members of Real Food Farm’s Compost Co-op remix an active compost pile during a recent workday.

Two participants of the course, also FoodCorps service members at Real Food Farm, completed their capstone project requirement by adopting NSR best management practices and the principles of a cooperative model to create the Real Food Farm Compost Co-op. The Compost Co-op provides the farm a tangible way to engage its customers and supporters, by training them to become members of the farm’s new food scrap drop-off system, while creating a valuable product. The project embodies best practices, with a rodent-resistant composting system, secure material storage, active monitoring and data recording, and thorough and regular mixing of materials. The Co-op, with close to 50 members, is also composting food scraps from local food scrap collection service, Compost Cab. The management of the system, though still driven by farm staff, is increasingly being distributed to all of its members through the formation of committees and adoption of bylaws.

Sophia Hosain of Real Food Farm trains new Compost Co-op members on the protocol for dropping off their food scraps.

Filbert Street Community Garden: Curtis Bay, Baltimore

The Curtis Bay neighborhood of Baltimore is Maryland’s most polluted zip code and the manufacturing industry has vanished, leaving in its wake high unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, and lack of opportunity. In this historically disenfranchised community, workforce skill training and employment opportunities are sorely needed, as is ready access to healthy food assistance programming.

A recent graduate of Benjamin Franklin High School builds the inaugural compost pile in Filbert Street Community Garden’s composting system.

Under a grant from the Abell Foundation, ILSR has partnered with the Chesapeake Center for Youth Development (CCYD) to launch a youth-led bike-powered food scrap collection and community composting initiative at the Filbert Street Garden in Curtis Bay. Together, we are creating a youth entrepreneurship program to train participants in workforce skills, food access programming and community-scale composting. CCYD has hired two local youth from the nearby high school to launch a bike-powered food scrap collection and composting enterprise, which will eventually serve an estimated 50 households and businesses in the Federal Hill and Curtis Bay neighborhoods. These youth will gain guided, hands-on experience supporting CCYD programs that improve access to fresh produce for as many as 250 local community members, and will manage a small-scale composting operation and its expansion. The project also aims to provide year-round employment with workforce skill training in billing, route development, customer outreach and marketing. ILSR has built the 3-bin composting system at Filbert Street Garden and trained the youth on how to compost. The compost produced will be used to grow more food.

The youth hired to run the bike-powered food scrap collection service receive their first hands-on composting training with ILSR staff.

Another key collaborator, and the inspiration for the youth-led bike-powered composting project, is BK ROT in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. BK ROT was started by Sandy Nurse and Renee Pepperone in 2013 and is a community-supported operation employing four local youth year-round to collect food scraps from the surrounding community by bike.


Our article in BioCycle’s January 2017 provides a deep dive into bike-powered food scrap collection businesses.


DC’s Ward 7

The University of the District of Columbia’s East Capitol Urban Farm (ECUF) in DC’s Ward 7 has transformed a vacant parcel of land to a community resource that promotes urban agriculture, and aims to improve food access and nutrition through a community-oriented farmers’ market, nutrition education, and community gardening plots. Creating opportunities for entrepreneurship for one of DC’s most economically disenfranchised corners is another goal. The Farm includes more than 80 gardening beds for Ward 7 residents, a community plaza, a play space for children, an education and engagement zone, and a site for a farmers’ market. The University of the District of Columbia (UDC) – through its College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences (CAUSES) – manages ECUF and led the effort to establish it in 2015.

Gardeners at UDC’s East Capitol Urban Farm don’t let the hot DC summer dampen their spirits!

ILSR is collaborating with CAUSES to establish a composting project, a key missing component of ECUF’s goal toward zero waste. On June 17th, ILSR staff coordinated a compost bin-building workshop, lead by local system designers Urban Farm Plans, for ECUF staff. The site is now being prepared for its next major milestone – its first composting workshop and the unveiling of its community drop-off program on Saturday, July 22nd.

Staff from ECUF, ILSR and Urban Farm Plans strike a pose after a successful bin-building workshop at ECUF.

ILSR is also collaborating with Soilful City to establish a community composting project at the Clay Terrace Community Garden. Xavier Brown runs Soilful City and is one of our NSR graduates. He currently is the compost manager at Project EDEN (Everyone Deserves to Eat Naturally), part of a church community in Ward 8. Project EDEN is an innovative youth-focused urban garden initiative that brings fresh fruits and vegetables, workforce development, and transitional employment opportunities to underserved youth and adults. It offers social and entrepreneurial opportunities in a community blighted by poverty and violence. In the past 3 years, EDEN has hired 36 youth and young adults ages 14-22 and has provided fresh produce to more than 350 families.

Xavier Brown of Soilful City has been working with Clay Terrace Community Garden (aka Dix Garden) to get the garden established.

With Xavier’s help, the community garden in Clay Terrace, which is part of the Richardson Dwellings DC Public Housing project, is now seeking similar opportunities. Together, we are planning the compost system, securing composting tools, and adapting the NSR program to the local community. We have fundraised to pay small stipends to two local garden founders to help establish and manage the composting system. We are exploring ways to use the composting project to expand membership in the garden, incorporate life and jobs skills training, as well as spur micro-enterprise development.

Xavier, also an NSR program graduate, has been hosting Soilful Thursday workdays around SE DC to help spread the gardening and composting love.

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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.