One man’s garbage fuels another man’s passion for healthy soil

Local nonprofits pick up compost from 15 area restaurants
Compost is talken by bicycle to two-dozen community gardens
Effort meant to help city meet state goals for composting


David S. Baker is crazy about soil. But not just any soil.

What excites him the most is the concept of healthy soil – the kind with enough organic matter in it that it can be a boon to Sacramento’s many community gardens and backyard farm plots.

And to get there, soil at those locations will need plenty of compost material. Baker has been eager to oblige.

On certain days, Baker can be seen making way from restaurant to restaurant on a bicycle, with trailer in tow. Inside the trailer are composting bins filled with food scraps and post-dining material picked up from several restaurants including Selland’s, Hot Italian and the Grange.

That effort is at the core of the local nonprofit he co-founded called Gras, whose focus is keeping food waste out of the city’s landfill and making sure it ends up in community gardens, urban farms and local backyards.

The effort dovetails with state goals. California has mandated that cities divert 75 percent of their food waste by 2020. Municipalities are charged with meeting that goal, but it will be difficult to reach without participation by the private sector and groups like Gras.

“Counties are scrambling to figure how to meet this target,” Baker said. “Sacramento is a little better off than some, and Gras is working to ensure that small-scale community composting can be permitted within the new regulations.”

Gras is involved in collecting food waste at 15 area restaurants. The food at each is put into dedicated Gras bins picked up weekly. For now, the effort is a boutique-sized affair. The nonprofit’s yearly budget is less than $50,000.

“We’re diverting roughly 20,000 pounds (of food waste) from restaurants a month,” Baker said.

That food waste is diverted to nearly 24 community gardens and private lots around the city.

Though his focus is hyperlocal, Baker is thinking big. His goal is to get 100 restaurants to participate with Gras and to find enough gardens, farms and backyards to deposit the compost he picks up.

“On one level, we’re closing the loop by using our food waste sustainably to produce more food and a healthy environment,” Baker said. “On the other hand, our task is building awareness.”

One area where he wants to build awareness and a presence is at schools. Gras is working with The Met Sacramento High School and with the Elk Grove Unified School District as an adviser to that district’s green academy.

“We’d like to be in each school teaching about composting as well as building compost for their community garden,” he said.

Baker added that he would like to see procedures

established for diverting organic food waste from school cafeterias.

He believes the gold standard for composting laws is San Francisco, which enacted the Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance in 2009. That ordinance is the most comprehensive mandatory composting and recycling law in the U.S., and requires residents and businesses to separate recyclables and compostables.

San Francisco’s goal is to have none of its waste diverted to landfills by 2020.

There is no such law in Sacramento, and whatever composting or food waste is picked up at area restaurants is done by what Baker calls an inefficient patchwork of haulers.

“It’s like the Wild West,” Baker said.

He believes the city has a long way to go but can forge an identity in food sustainability.

“With a breadbasket of enlightened chefs, we can bring awareness of the relationship of food to our environment,” he said. “With a blossoming urban farm movement in our midst, it’s easy to conceive of a closed-loop system where the waste generated by the local food community becomes the resources to sustain urban agriculture, local nutrition and wellness.”

Edward Ortiz: 916-321-1071, @edwardortiz