This organization is helping people across San Diego County get into composting

Food2Soil’s Alyssa Brodsky uses a trommel sifter to remove larger pieces of mulch from compost.
Food2Soil’s Alyssa Brodsky uses a trommel sifter to remove larger pieces of mulch from compost at Ocean View Growing Grounds in Mountain View. The community garden is one of the drop-off hubs for the composting service, which is run by the nonprofit organization Inika Small Earth.
(Nancee E. Lewis / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Organization does the work for San Diego County’s urban dwellers who don’t have the space or inclination to do full-scale composting at home


On a sunny Saturday morning in June, Amanda Simons and Gabriel Doyle arrived at the Ocean View Community Garden in San Diego’s Mountain View neighborhood with a 5-gallon, locked white bucket. Inside the bucket were layers of vegetative food scraps and mulch from wood chips. The contents would be turned into compost by neighborhood drop-off hub manager Alyssa Brodsky of composting collective Food2Soil.

Food2Soil is a network of decentralized community composting for San Diego County. Individuals, businesses like restaurants and HOAs, and corporations and institutions that have onsite kitchens and cafeterias that produce vegetative scraps can participate. The Ocean View Community Garden is one of several sites operated by what the organization calls “soil farmers,” who take in the scraps and create compost from it, which is then given away to participants or sold.

Simons, a lecturer in linguistics at San Diego State University, has incorporated composting in her lifestyle for some time. She explained that she used to live in San Francisco, where they have curbside composting, plus she worked at a garbage and recycling company there.

“So, I really took on the culture of composting and trying to reduce waste,” she said. “When I moved down here and they didn’t have it, it became something I sought out.”

Simons and Doyle, an assistant professor in linguistics at SDSU, tried different options at home, but they live in an apartment in Little Italy, so home composting wasn’t feasible. She found Food2Soil online.

“This seemed like the most convenient, because the scraps are contained within the bucket,” she said.

Volunteers learn how to make sections of a smart stacking composting system at a community garden in Mountain View.
Volunteers Nichelle Wentz (left), Jill Selders (center) and Ian Moreland learn how to make a smart stacking composting system at Ocean View Growing Grounds.
(Nancee E. Lewis / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The couple’s strategy is to fill a used yogurt container daily and then dump the scraps in the Food2Soil bucket, add a handful or two of mulch to support the decaying food and keep away flies and stench, and put the lockable lid back on. Food2Soil calls this layering method the “lasagna” method. The couple drop off a full bucket every two to three weeks, depending on how much cooking at home they’re doing, Doyle said.

Although California’s food-waste recycling law took effect Jan. 1, many parts of the state have not yet put the necessary systems in place; some will roll out this summer. Some cities in San Diego County are recycling food waste — including El Cajon, Escondido, Chula Vista and Oceanside — but the city of San Diego is sorely lacking in food waste recycling capacity.

According to Sarah Boltwala-Mesina, whose nonprofit Inika Small Earth runs Food2Soil, San Diego County requires 590,000 tons of annual food waste recycling capacity. However, existing and planned facilities in the county are only able to recycle about 300,000 tons of food waste.

Food2Soil is contributing to the recycling of more than 100 tons and growing. They have 315 subscription members and 300who, like Simons and Doyle, pay per bucket to drop off scraps at one of seven drop-off hubs, along with a scrap pickup service for large organizations like General Atomics and San Diego Mesa College.

Boltwala-Mesina started Food2Soil in 2015. Originally a finance professional, she found herself getting bored with her job in valuation consulting, and with two children starting public school, she decided to take a break and volunteer there. The school needed someone to help out with the recycling program. Knowing nothing about it or even having any interest in it, she signed up because it was an available opening.

Volunteers learn how to make sections of a smart stacking composting system.
Volunteers learn how to make sections of a smart stacking composting system at a community garden.
(Nancee E. Lewis / For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

“That’s when I realized the amount of waste that we as a society make,” she said. “My own household was pretty zero waste at that time, so I was just appalled at the lunch waste at the school. A group of moms would stand by the recycling stations and help the kids sort stuff — and then at the end of that lunch period, the janitor would pick everything up and trash it.”

It frustrated Boltwala-Mesina, and with her business background, her mind went into the possible economic factors. She realized that no one really had the financial incentive to do the right thing.

“At that time, my interest was to see if I could not just extract the economic value but see if by doing that, the environmental and social value would fall into place. I formed Inika Small Earth to work on zero waste in schools at that time, working for the county of San Diego as a consultant doing recycling education, and the more I did education, the more convinced I got that it’s entrepreneurial opportunities, and not just education, that’s going to seal this for us.”

Food2Soil, she said, came about because she used to be in a lot of volunteer community composting groups. Eventually, the volunteers’ initial excitement would wane. It’s hard, backbreaking work, she said, and people would move on. Boltwala-Mesina decided to experiment to see if she could find an economic justification for community composting — could they charge for the service, could they sell the compost? She used grant money as seed money for the social enterprise, built up the organization, and today they pay their 10 soil farmers and the organization’s expenses.

A pile of composting food scraps in one of several smart stack composting stacks.
A pile of food scraps becomes part of one of the composting stacks at Ocean View Growing Grounds in Mountain View.
(Nancee E. Lewis / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

For families and individuals, there are two plans. One is a fixed subscription-based composting program for households who generate a lot of scraps and want to have the convenience of dropping it off in their neighborhood. The cost is $15 monthly, and members can drop off at least once a week. A one-time $10 charge enables members to get a bucket with a locking lid.

Alyssa Brodsky shows off some of the beautiful compost created from food scraps and mulch.
Subscribers to the Food2Soil composting service get a bucket, take food scraps to community drop-off sites and get year-round access to compost.
(Nancee E. Lewis / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

For those like Simons and Doyle, who generate smaller amounts of scraps or prefer to consolidate scraps (you can wrap them and freeze them) and make fewer drop-offs, there is the Bucket Drop Plan. That entails a $10 initial cost for a starter kit of two buckets (one for the scraps, the other for mulch for layering), mulch and liners — paper that is wrapped along the inside wall of the scrap collection bucket to keep the bucket from getting, let’s say, juicy. After the initial cost, it’s $5 a bucket for each drop-off for composting. You can buy vouchers for multiple bucket drops, and with each drop you can get mulch refills and bucket liners at no cost. The downside of the Bucket Drop Plan is there are fewer participating locations and restricted hours.

 Jill Giraud greets fellow volunteer Judy Nissen who arrives with a freshly created portion of a composting smart stack.
Jill Giraud (left) greets fellow volunteer Judy Nissen, arriving with a freshly created portion of a composting smart stack at Ocean View Growing Grounds.
(Nancee E. Lewis / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

And any participant, regardless of plan, has year-round access to what they call “All You Can Sift” compost for gardening. Bring a bag or container, learn to sift the mature fine compost from the still-chunky compost and it’s yours.

Sally Tinker was Food2Soil’s first soil farmer. She and her husband, Jeff Smith, live in Mission Hills. For six years, they’d been a neighborhood hub for drop-offs from Susie’s Farm, a community-supported agriculture (CSA) provider in southern San Diego. Tinker, a master gardener, was already composting for some of their neighbors and happened to run into Boltwala-Mesina at an event at the Ocean Beach Seed Library. She learned about Food2Soil and today has 45 members doing drop-offs in her front yard.

Subscription members can access the organization’s app to get the code to unlock drop-off carts at soil farmers’ homes, meaning Tinker and her colleagues don’t have to be around for a drop-off. At Tinker’s drop-off hub, neighbors walking their dogs or going out for a coffee or meal can just stop by and empty their buckets.

Alyssa Brodsky (right) talks about composting with home composter Kari Moran at Ocean View Growing Grounds.
Alyssa Brodsky (right) talks about composting with home composter Kari Moran at Ocean View Growing Grounds.
(Nancee E. Lewis / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Tinker and other soil farmers, like Nichelle Wentz, go through a multistep program to become soil farmers. First they complete Neighborhood Composting 101 to learn how to compost. A four-week apprenticeship program with a compost hub manager follows. With that successfully completed, they sign up officially and start composting as a Level 1 Soil Farmer. Level 1 is composting for themselves — and they can keep the finished compost. To move up to Level 2, the soil farmer needs to have a setup that enables them to monitor batch activity and temperatures to satisfy the organization’s requirement to qualify as a neighborhood compost hub. Wentz works at Paradise Hills’ community garden with her boyfriend, who is a gardener. She finds it an opportunity to teach.

“I like doing it as part of a community garden,” she said. “There’s a group called Open Heart that works with disadvantaged, at-risk youth, and they come out. A couple of Saturdays ago, we showed the kids our composting — what we do and how we do it. A lot of them thought it was gross, from the scraps, but some of them were interested in the process and how it related to gardening.”

Alyssa Brodsky (left) wets down compost as volunteer Soil farmer Jill Selders uses a pitch fork to turn and move the compost.
Alyssa Brodsky (left) wets down compost as volunteer soil farmer Jill Selders uses a pitchfork to turn and move the compost from one smart compost stack to another.
(Nancee E. Lewis / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Point Loma resident Jill Giraud, a retired social worker for San Diego County, got involved with Food2Soil in 2019. Originally, she would help to pick up and deliver food scraps from restaurants, but when the pandemic hit, Boltwala-Mesina switched her to running a neighborhood drop-off hub for families, from her home.

“I like the composting,” she said. “I like to see the vegetables change. I like the biology.”

Brodsky, the Ocean View Community Garden drop-off hub manager, is alsoFood2Soil’sweb builder. No, it’s not an Internet-related position: Her “web” is the organization’s soil farmer network. She supports the soil farmers, visiting them to make sure they’re doing OK, and helping if they need anything. From them, she’s learned, especially with the pandemic, the value of interacting with customers.

“Everybody has relationships with the people who bring them food scraps,” she said. “And with COVID, a lot of our lives have gone up and down. It’s more personal interaction than just, ‘OK, got your food scraps; see you later.’ ”

Volunteer Soil farmer Jill Selders uses a pitch fork to turn and move compost.
Food2Soil volunteer soil farmer Jill Selders uses a pitchfork to turn and move compost from one smart compost stack to another at Ocean View Growing Grounds.
(Nancee E. Lewis)

Brodsky studied dairy farming in college in Illinois and had worked with dairy farmers in the Peace Corps in Bangladesh before working on waste systems in Madagascar. By the time she returned to the U.S., she realized she had no idea what happened to the trash in this country. Before moving to San Diego in 2019, she joked that she was a “trash tourist” with her parents, visiting landfills to learn more. She had composted as a lifestyle but hadn’t thought of it as a career path, but with California’s new recycling law, SB 1383, requiring every jurisdiction to provide organic waste collection services to all residents and businesses beginning in 2022, she thought composting would be a great opportunity, and went through the Food2Soil program.

“Instead of raising livestock, I’m now raising microbes,” she said.

Additionally, she and her boyfriend started a small organic vegetable farm in Bonita called Ranchito MilkyWay.

“It’s hard to make a good pile of compost with just one person’s spent scraps,” she said. “When you come collectively together, you build a beautiful pile and then everybody gets compost.”

A soil farmer dumps food scraps layered with mulch into composting smart stacks.
Food2Soil soil farmer (and employee) Alyssa Brodsky dumps food scraps layered with mulch into composting smart stacks.
(Nancee E. Lewis / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

As someone with a small garden, I’d been contemplating setting up a composting station, but like many people, I realized I didn’t have the space and couldn’t commit to the time and effort it took. So, I recently signed up for Food2Soil’s bucket drop-off program. It took a minute to get in the habit of saving everything from spent coffee grounds and tea leaves to garlic skins, peach pits and eggshells. I keep the buckets in my garage, and even through a recent heat wave, there have been zero flies or vile smells. And there’s no smelly food rotting in my kitchen trash can.

“Not all of us grow our own food. Not all of us need to be bakers,” said Boltwala-Mesina. “But you go and seek out the things that you don’t like to do and pay someone else to do it for you.

“Composting is the same way. You don’t have the space to do it. You don’t have the interest to do it. You don’t have the time to do it. That’s fine. But that should not be the reason why you’re not composting, because there are others who can compost for you.

“As a human being, you are also responsible for the waste that you generate, and it is your responsibility to manage it responsibly. So just as you are an evolved consumer, are careful about where your food comes from, you as an evolved consumer, a human citizen of this planet, need to also pay attention to where your food is going. And it needs to go into the soil one way or another. It’s your responsibility to figure out how you’re going to send it back to the soil. Either you learn how to do it yourselfor find a friend or neighbor, or find a service that will help you.”

Golden is a San Diego freelancewriter and blogger.