Detroit Has No Time to Waste Food

Date: 7 Mar 2024 | posted in: Building Local Power, Composting, Detroit | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Reneé’s journey began with a simple idea: composting isn’t just about reducing waste — it’s about building communities. Reneé V. Wallace, executive director at FoodPLUS Detroit, empowers Detroiters to drive systemic change within themselves, their homes, and throughout their community. Through innovative pilot projects like banding neighbors together to utilize alleys for community projects, partnering with farmers’ markets to pick up wasted food, and creating compost systems at universities to build bridges between farmers and students, Reneé is revolutionizing how we think about sustainability. By fostering collaboration and community engagement, Reneé is not only transforming Detroit’s economy but also nurturing a more resilient and sustainable future for all.

Reggie Rucker: Hello and welcome back to another episode of Building Local Power Detroit, our first stop in a multi-city series where we explore how to build local power from the experiences of people who are doing just that on the ground in their respective cities. These are the people who are proving what’s possible when a community comes together to shape its future. We’ll talk to community leaders, advocates, activists, entrepreneurs, and elected officials, all who have powerful stories about the drive to write Detroit’s next chapter. We think these stories will be illuminating in their own right, but we hope they’ll also inspire you on your journey to build local power wherever you’re listening from. I’m so excited to do this tour with my co-host, Luke Gannon. What’s up, Luke?
Luke Gannon: Hey, Reggie. I am doing pretty well. It’s been super sunny in Minneapolis this week, which has really lifted my spirits, so that’s been lovely. How are you doing?
Reggie Rucker: I’m doing well, Luke. I’m doing well. But first I need to apologize. I’m sorry I don’t have any throwback jams for you today, so I’m truly sorry. But I’m excited about this episode nonetheless. And the reason why I’m excited is we’ve done composting episodes before and they’re always really great, always learn something new. But what I think is really special about what you’re going to hear from Renee, our guest today, is that this isn’t so much a composting story as it is a community story. It’s a story about building networks and coalitions and partnerships to join forces with people who share a common cause with you. Even if they may not know it initially, but you help them find it, you help them see it. It takes a certain type of creativity and really brilliance in the truest sense of the word to make certain projects come together. And Renee is that creative and brilliant in spades. So, Luke, I’ll let you go ahead and take the story from here.
Luke Gannon: So today on the show, Renee V. Wallace from FoodPLUS Detroit shares how she has built a strong network of organizations piloting programs that focus on community sustainability. Through her efforts, she has united people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives to create sustainable change. Here’s Renee.
Reneé Wallace: I am Renee V. Wallace, and I lead a nonprofit called FoodPLUS Detroit. And we have a composting initiative called the People’s Compost Initiative, and it was one of our first inaugural programs when we started FoodPLUS back in 2014. I tell people I’m part contagion and part evangelist, so I’m out really looking at composting from a systems perspective in terms of how we do this work. And so last year I moved from just… not just, but talking with others about the whats, whys, hows, and all of that, to actually entering into a partnership to actually start a composting business. So I tell people, you get close to this, be careful. Because we really are looking for everyone to find their place in it. I firmly believe that.
And so FoodPLUS Detroit, when we started the organization, originally it was an idea of Michigan State University. They were looking to develop this network of innovation coalitions across the world, and they selected seven cities, and one US city was in Detroit, all the others were at other places. And so myself and Kathryn Lynch Underwood, we explored that. And we were like, “Okay, so one more non-profit for what?” Detroit is just very, very well known for urban agricultural work, and so the start of this was from a food systems perspective, close the loop, right? And when we were looking at the landscape of what was being done at that time, now mind you, this was 2012, 13 when we were making these decisions, there was a big, big gap in composting.
Back then even if you Googled food waste, you would be back on page 15 on Google at that time. Well, fast-forward, it’s in our faces now. But that wasn’t true then. People who were using compost were finding that they had to… We had to always bring it in. We had to bring it in. And it was like, no, we can do this. And so I didn’t know anything about composting. I tell people, to all the folks that say I don’t know anything. I’m like, “Good, that’s a great place to start.” But you can make it accessible at so many different levels. That’s my belief. I’m a systems person. System process change is what I do.
Luke Gannon: Renee has been involved in composting since its earliest murmurs, while always conscious of the significance of food systems. It wasn’t until she immersed herself in composting that she truly grasped its profound importance in both the community and the environment.
Reneé Wallace: When it first started out, it was about the food system. Let’s close the loop. It makes sense. It was food. As I often say to people, everybody eats, we ate, but we don’t eat everything. So what happens to the food that we didn’t eat? So what’s going to happen to that food? And along the way, it evolved from being just about the system closing the loop because you can rescue food and feed more people. You can take the food and feed the animals. For me, the conversation started to shift from not just about the food system, but when I learned about compost, compost has superpowers. It’s more of a city’s systems solution. It’s a soil-based solution because once you get away from composting, the act itself, you start to look at compost, the product. And what does compost in soil do? It not only improves the quality of the soil for growing the food, it’s going to improve the quality of the soil to have the plant sequester even carbon. It’s going to improve the quality of the soil so that water can infiltrate and you stop flooding my dog on basement.
Luke Gannon: Compost forms a vital network connecting a multitude of organisms. It nourishes humans with food, provides essential nutrients for plant growth and vitality, and contributes to the development of resilient infrastructure, ensuring strong foundations for our environment.
Reneé Wallace: As I started to have a deeper understanding of the power of compost, it started to shift the conversation about it. I talk about it in terms of what do we have a need for. I’m not talking to you about just composting or compost itself, I’m talking to you about what is happening in the quality of our life. If our basements are flooding, if people are dying from heat, okay, let’s plant some trees. How about we plant some dog on trees? How about we make the soil good so the trees have a good start? Because oftentimes the trees don’t do well because the soil is not well. So if we can build healthy soil, then we can build solutions.
Luke Gannon: Every single day we make a choice. The majority of people want at least some of the same things, clean air, clean water, and healthy food. We have the power to contribute in having that. If we make the choice to compost our food, instead of putting it in the landfill.
Reneé Wallace: Accessible first in people’s minds, I tell people, listen, in kindergarten, I’m going to take you all the way back. What’s the first thing they taught us in kindergarten? Where everything goes. Everything had a place in kindergarten, did it not? Now, you need to hang your coat right here. Put your shoes right here. Sit your little body part right here. This is where you put the books back. It’s the same thing. You are already making decisions, but help people shift the decision they make based on something they want.
Luke Gannon: Change is made in participatory democracies. Renee sees a clear pathway for sharing knowledge and creating participation.
Reneé Wallace: I frame it and I talk about it as the three EPs. The first EP is enabled policy. Second EP is enable public, and the third EP is enable practice. So enabled policy, you have to have an environment that allows for a thing to happen. The stewards of our cities and our counties and our states have to create a policy environment that enables us to do these things at whatever scale we want to do it. That’s the first EP. The second EP is we have to have enable public, we have to be people who are informed and understand why this is important to do and what our part is in doing it. One, do I want to participate in it, and will I lend my voice to the conversation that allows the stewards that are passing the policies to say yes? And then you have to have enable practice. You have to have people that know what the heck they’re doing.
Luke Gannon: The beautiful thing about composting is its accessibility, the potential to do it at every scale.
Reneé Wallace: We need to work out models that are going to allow us to put it in everybody’s reach. And when you have diverse scales, then you can build models that look different in different places so that you can make it accessible. A process I put in place a few years ago, I started doing pilots because I believe in demonstrating. We wanted to inform the policy. So how do you inform the policy? You inform the policy by demonstrating how to do it.
One of my pilots, I paired… Wayne State University, they had been trying to do a compost program on their campus and had not been able to really get that going. I helped them design a program. So we built out programs on both sides. It’s like, okay, the university has the materials. We created a program, compost warrior student-led program. The students are collecting the materials. We get the services to let them use the trucks to bring the materials. We worked with the grounds department, which brought leaves over. We built this thing up and we built a community. We built a program, and we built a program in such a way that it was about integrating two communities, a city, and a campus community.
Luke Gannon: Renee is involved in multiple pilot projects, partnering with other organizations to create a cross-communal network that is driving collaboration and shared interest and making a sustainable difference across Detroit.
Reneé Wallace: So my third pilot, which is in the neighborhood where I live, are people who live in a really nice neighborhood and they decided to activate the alleys. So we started doing work in the alleys to activate the alleys. So we’ve been a part of the alley activation program. And we started to talk about, well, what are we going to do in these alleys and what are we going to do in the neighborhood? So people are growing food. It’s like, well, yeah, we got a few people interested in composting. So they’re backyard composters. And what we’re working toward is we’re going to build a shared system in the alley. We’ve networked, it’s either 12 or 18 alleys now.
And so first it was, let’s go from green way to dream way. First of all, let’s just get them cleaned up where we can use them, they’re green, they’re beautiful. And now let’s dream what do we want to do in the alleys. So there’s a lot of different things going on, murals and other kinds of things. And so we’re going to build a system, a shared system, and drop-offs throughout the alley system.
Luke Gannon: Renee actively contributes to the Detroit City Council Green Task Force and played a pivotal role in establishing the Organics Recycling Committee within the Sustainability Advisory Group. In every initiative she undertakes, Renee prioritizes meeting people where they are, approaching each situation with understanding rather than coercion.
Reneé Wallace: If we want to be successful, it’s not about making it cookie-cutter per se. Now the process is a process, how you come to it is diverse. Look at what people want. Look at what people are doing. Look at where their heart is. What’s going to motivate them to come do this process, that’s what’s going to be different as you go from community to community. And here I am in Detroit, and if you’ve brought four other people here in Detroit, you’re going to get four different versions of what this looks and feels like.
Detroit has been doing urban ag forever, and we chose strategically certain things that were not happening in the food system to say, hey, y’all, we can grow. We have a next. Let’s go. We’ve been doing it this way, now let’s do something else. And we picked composting as one of those what is next. This was back in the time, early on when the vertical gardening wasn’t popular, the new ways of growing food. So back in 2012, 13, 14, we were just really starting to innovate some of these ways.
Luke Gannon: Community organizing around farming has long been a staple in Detroit. Now the city is finally catching up, leveraging community input to drive policies that actively support farmers and composters alike.
Reneé Wallace: Presently, we’re working on the policy. In Michigan, landmark policy just passed Part 115, which has very, very significant compost standards and regulation. The whole state is moving away from disposal approaches to sustainable materials management. The policy is going to help drive the entire state. And so we had very limited policy at a local level. We had some language in our urban ag ordinance. And the language beyond that was the solid waste policy plan, advocating for policy that is tiered, so that depending on what I’m doing should dictate what the requirements are. And the state is such that we were able to raise the ceiling a bit on the state level, which gave us a little more room at a local level on what it is that we could put in place. And two of the bills in the package addressed composting in particular.
Luke Gannon: FoodPLUS Detroit is expanding its partnerships with farmer’s markets across the city to ensure that the food utilized at these markets is returned to the soil completing the cycle of sustainability.
Reneé Wallace: The vast majority of the composting right now is happening with people who are farming, people who are growing food. We have a network of community markets. We have like 20 community markets of farms and some farm stands around the city. So one of the pilots that I’m involved in now is we’re going to do drop-offs at three farmer’s markets to pilot it so that we can start to look at collecting materials first from behind the counter with the farmers and things that the food that doesn’t get eaten or sold, or it’s just scrapped and collecting that. And it goes back to the farms that are composting. And then hopefully, we’ll be able to expand that across all the markets. So then we can begin to educate and engage the people who come to the market. So look at the community and what they’re interested in. And so the policy has to change. So a number of people looking at it from diverse ways that meet the needs of our diverse population to me is what’s important. One message, but it’s multiple voices.
Luke Gannon: Wow. Well, thank you so much for letting us share your story on the show today, Renee, and for being a part of the movement to build local self-reliance in Detroit.
Reggie Rucker: Luke, as always, great job. Thank you so much. And Renee, thank you for reminding us of the humanity that we find when we connect with each other and the Earth that we live on and get life from. Always a welcome reminder. And thanks to all of you, our listeners, for tuning in. We’ll be back again in two weeks with another story out of Detroit. But in the meantime, check out the show notes from today’s episode to dive deeper into what we discussed today. And as always, you can visit for more on our work to fight corporate control and build local power. Or just send us an email to to let us know what’s on your mind. This show is produced by Luke Gannon and me, Reggie Rucker. The podcast is edited by Luke Gannon and Tea Noelle. The music for the season is also composed by Tea Noelle. Thank you so much for listening to Building Local Power.



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Music Credit: Mattéa Overstreet

Photo Credit: Em McPhie, ILSR’s Digital Communications Manager

Podcast produced by Reggie Rucker and Luke Gannon

Podcast edited by Luke Gannon and Mattéa Overstreet

Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

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