Califonia Bountiful

What goes around, comes around

Mar./Apr. 2008 California Country magazine

Food scraps are now being turned into nutrient-rich compost through a program that's having a big impact on farms all across California.

Recycling program turns table scraps into fancy fertilizer

When you eat out, it's not likely you think about what happens to the part of your meal you leave on your plate. But in the Bay Area, restaurants from San Francisco to Oakland are quite interested in your food scraps--and for one important reason: They have a better use for them. Instead of getting tossed into the trash, the scraps are now being turned into nutrient-rich compost through a program that's having a big impact on farms all across California.

Scoma's executive chef Steven Scarabosio and his wife, Laura, a hostess at the San Francisco restaurant, enjoy being at the forefront of a recycling revolution and they're doing it one plate of gourmet food at a time.

It all started in the late 1990s when the state ordered cities to divert half of their waste from landfills by the year 2000, or else face stiff penalties. In 1996 the city of San Francisco hired Norcal Waste Co. to find out exactly what was going into landfills. When the company discovered that 19 percent of the material was food scraps, it set out to design a program to capture that material and transform it into a marketable product. In other words, why not turn food scraps into fancy fertilizer?

"It's a bit of a role reversal," said Robert Reed, public relations manager of Sunset Scavenger Co., a Norcal subsidiary. "Now farms are depending on the restaurants for one of their most important products--fertilizer. Now you have restaurants excited about sending stuff back to the farms where they get their produce."

Since the program's official launch in 1998, more than 2,200 Bay Area restaurants have signed on, diverting an almost unbelievable average of 300 tons per day of organic material--material that otherwise would be loading up the landfills. The company estimates that about 25 percent of San Francisco's waste is food, a high percentage for other cities but normal for San Francisco because of its concentration of restaurants.

"I am sure there aren't many people who thought this was viable and wondered if it would actually work. But the fact that San Francisco is doing it so successfully has opened up a lot of eyes," Reed said.

Californians throw away more than 5 million tons of food scraps each year, according to the state's Integrated Waste Management Board. And while many cities are recycling bottles, cans and paper, food waste remains "the new frontier."

Scoma's chefs go through plenty of fresh ingredients each day, including about 700 pounds of crabmeat, to create dishes like their famous Dungeness crab Louis salad. Leftovers are separated into specially designated green trash cans that are part of an innovative program that turns table scraps into compost.

Today the Bay Area's food scrap compost program is the largest urban compost collection program in America. Here's how it works: Every day four or five 18-wheelers collect scraps from restaurants all over the city and head to Norcal's giant composting station in Vacaville. There, at Jepson Prairie Organics, it is mixed with cardboard, paper and yard trimmings and then pushed into large bags. The temperature shoots to about 140 degrees naturally and the composting begins. After about 90 days, all of that garbage has been transformed into acres and acres of organic fertilizer.

This nutrient-rich compost has become one of particular interest to farmers because it is literally food for the soil. It is made from the most diverse feedstock possible, with ingredients ranging from fish bones and broccoli to cantaloupe skins and coffee grounds. In fact, the compost has been nicknamed "Four Course Compost" because it serves as a four-course meal for the soil, providing healthful portions of nitrogen, potassium, potash and organic matter.

"It makes total sense that as I am trucking down the freeway to San Francisco with all of these nutrients from my farm, they are coming the other way with food waste," said farmer Nigel Walker, who targets the Bay Area with his organic produce. "This is a way of completing the cycle. The city is giving something back."

Walker owns and operates the 60-acre Eatwell Farm in Dixon, which is about 70 miles northeast of San Francisco. There he grows more than 50 different organic crops--everything from apples to winter squash--and runs a successful Community Supported Agriculture program, which provides subscribers with a weekly harvest. In addition, he is a regular at farmers markets across the Bay Area so he can see firsthand the impact of the recycling program.

"Food comes from the valleys, gets consumed in the cities and then comes right back to the valleys in the form of compost," said Walker.

In addition to row crop and orchard farmers, in 2002 Norcal began marketing its Four Course Compost to winegrape growers. Since then, more than 30 vineyards in Northern California have started using the compost on a regular basis.

Kathleen Inman, owner and winemaker at Inman Family Vineyards in Sonoma County, tried the compost in 2003 and started using it extensively the following year.

"I noticed the Jepson Prairie Organics stand at the Sonoma County Winegrowers trade show," she recalled. "I was attracted to the fact that it was made of kitchen scraps rather than solely suburban yard waste, which often has more residual herbicides and non-organic fertilizers."

Inman and other growers are sold on the results they've achieved.

"So far, the yields and quality reports I've been hearing from other vineyards from North Bay and Central Valley farmers using organic compost have been very good," said Jose Morales of Pina Vineyard Management.

"We have to give back to the soil," said Linda Hale, vineyard supervisor for Madrone Vineyard at Domenici Ranch in Sonoma County. "The benefits that we will reap are incredible."

With results like these, it's not surprising that more and more farmers from all around the state are turning to this kind of compost. Organic farmer Chris Simas of Capay Fruits and Vegetables farms 100 acres in Yolo County and says the table scrap compost makes a big difference in all of the crops he grows.

Like the tomatoes at Chris Simas' farm in the Capay Valley, farmers benefit their crops while bringing the recycling program full circle.

"Three years ago, before we started using this compost, our tomatoes had hardly any color, but today they are big, beautiful and vibrant," Simas said.

And to fully complete the recycling loop, in turn those vibrant tomatoes are a welcome sight to chefs like Steven Scarabosio, executive chef at Scoma's Restaurant in San Francisco.

This legendary establishment on Pier 47 is not only a huge consumer of fresh produce, fish and meats, but because of the interest in sustainable farming, it has become active in sustainable dining and is now one of the biggest restaurant recyclers in the state. The restaurant has devoted so much to its recycling program that today it diverts more than 90 percent of its waste.

"It's just one of those great win-win situations for chefs, farmers and in the end, consumers, too," Scarabosio said.

Scarabosio isn't alone in his praise for this innovative way of recycling. Jepson Prairie Organics has been fielding calls from spots as close to home as Los Angeles and as far away as South Korea, all looking for the creative waste-management solution represented by the company's food scrap derived compost.

"People are starting to become savvy about sustainable farming practices that are beneficial for the long term to our lands and environment," Scarabosio said. "These are issues that go beyond farming. It's part of a comprehensive plan for all of us to be stewards of the Earth. And it's definitely a new way to think about trash."

Tracy Sellers is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation and the popular weekly television program "California Country." She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or

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