project leader
Stephanos K
Queens (Astoria, Sunnyside, Jackson Heights)
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Jr Composters, class 2 - What do you want to know about composting?

the project

NYC's wastestream is comprised of 17% food scraps. There are several issues associated with food waste, including: -Methane (a Greenhouse Gas 27x more potent than CO2) which is generated when food scraps are deposited in a landfill. -Ground water pollution. When food waste is deposited in landfills, the accumulation becomes an environmental hazard. The hazard accumulated with this accumulation includes the runoff from the food waste into underground water deposits. -Land Use. A lot of land is put out of use from more productive purposes when it becomes a landfill. The communities around those landfills suffer environmentally and economically, as a result. -Oil. Transporting food and food waste has been linked to one of the greatest human contributions to global warming. These changes come as a result of cumulative activity, and the practices behind these activities have been learned, and can be unlearned. -Soil. In the city, much of the soil is contaminated due to human activity. Some of this contamination can be reversed through the application of compost. In addition, soil is being depleted due to poor management practices at an alarming rate, at the same time food prices are increasing and the nutritional value of available food is becoming an ever greater concern. Compost increases the vitality of the soil, thereby promoting plant health, which results in healthier vegetables.

the steps

The Junior Composter Course will run for eight weeks over the summer, in indoor and outdoor classrooms. The youth will be provided with a work schedule --accepting and making compost-- a reading curriculum, and a hands-on project. The participants will recieve a stipend of both money and other currency to use at Greenmarkets in western Queens where composting is taking place, as well as a bicycle from Recycle-a-Bicycle to get to and from the markets. Working with various gardening and greening groups in northwestern Queens (ARROW Community Garden, Build It Green!NYC, City Growers, LIC Community Garden, Sunnyside Gardens Park Community Garden, Two Coves Community Garden, Western Queens Compost Initiative), the youth will meet at a market once a week to discuss the readings with a program coordinator. Each of the youth will also assist with compost drop-off's at Greenmarkets in western Queens, and creating compost at one of four community gardens, and an urban farm.

why we're doing it

The Junior Composter Course is a summer internship for youth aged 16-18 from underserved and immigrant communities. Many of these communities are already familiar with the practices of composting, but the knowledge and skills aren't passed on to younger generations, as composting is seen as backward and obsolete in more modern setting. Youth represent hope for the future. Moreover, underserved and imigrant communities are often the most affected by environmental injustices, with the fewest resources to address those issues. The youth who are enrolled in the Junior Composter course will be given the tools to contribute to a cleaner, healthier environment and empower their family and community to contribute to a greener NYC. In addition ato addressing environmental concerns, one of the greater challenges that youth face is dispair associated with being powerless to make a menaingful contribution to improving the environment. The youth, as a result of working in the Greenmarkets, gardens and farms, and discussing compost with patrons and volunteers, will be exposed to careers in the green collar and urban agriculture sectors.


For 6 Youth: Bicycles @ $50 = 300, Stipend @ $160 = 960, Instructor @ $480 = 480, OSCR Jr. @ 10 = 60, Books @ 24 = 144, T-shirts = 150, project total = 2094, ioby fee = 168


Jr Composters, class 2 - What do you want to know about composting?


From Victoria Gershik, Guest Blogger

Entry 2 on Junior Composters

On another Saturday, a second class of the Junior Composter Course took place. It was a beautiful day like the Saturday before. I was traveling on the train from south Brooklyn through Manhattan to Queens with no local stops on the 7 train. I was carrying with me a quartered watermelon chunk and a leaky bag of thawing fruit and veggie scraps, leaving a puddle of water on the train wherever I stood.

When I arrived at our meeting place in Sunnyside, Queens, we, like last week, sat down in a circle on the ground. I like the spot we sit by. There’s a lovely oak tree and the tree pit is filled with sandy soil. It evokes teachable moments. I asked the students what kind of a tree it is. Most knew it was an oak. They promptly mention how every time they look at a city tree they see all the things that need to be amended, like the poor porosityof the soil in most tree pits. We discuss how adding compost to the soil would draw more insects and worms to create spaces in the soil. Compost could create higher porosity by binding to soil particles and forming aggregates, or clumps, in the soil. I wonder if the Parks Department actually is making a conscious decision to use just sandy soil so that when it rains the water drains quickly in the tree pits. Otherwise, the rainwater could pool up in the pits causing roots to rot. I’m not sure.

Half of the Junior Composters did the reading and the rest were honest about not doing the reading. They received the books Let It Rot and Worms Eat My Garbage and I asked them to catch up on the reading by next class. On the other hand, the poem, This Compost, most everyone read. They enjoyed the poem and we discussed its meaning; how amazing the earth’s ability was to take in the old, the death and from that create the new and alive.  Then we read the poem aloud, taking turns. It was interesting to hear them read aloud. I started to think about how very little time I spent in public school reading anything aloud and when I did I was always scared to mess up. I felt maybe it was an unnatural or vulnerable thing for them to do as well. I possibly could learn something about them from this. Eli prodded everyone to read the poem with vigor and gusto. I tried to read the poem with vigor and gusto and even I, because the bar had been set for a neutral tone, was more tame than I might have been than if I had been reading it in the company of thespians, poets, and/or English majors. I hoped it to be fun and not seem like a school assignment. This was tough. I was still getting to know them and they were still getting to know me, and each other.

We went over the compost basics and the compost systems we learned about from the last class. I wanted to be sure they at least had a solid understanding of the compost basics.  We did this while eating watermelon. We also discussed how their week went, what they did during the week and how most of them got involved with TreesNY. That followed with sharing with them my idea to start a group compost bin just between us seven and for each Jr. Composter to take the transportable compost bucket home each week. They agreed to the experiment and Senley volunteered to be the first to take the compost bucket. It was bigger and heavier than I wanted us to start with. I would like to get a smaller container for the compost babysitting process.

They had fun adding stuff to the group compost bucket. We started with some browns - soil and dry leaves at the bottom of the bucket, then added the cut up watermelon rinds that we had as our morning treat, and then added all the food scraps I had brought from my home. I was composting a diverse number of things and they were curious about each and every item. I had just finished a cross-country trip and lots of my grains, seeds, and spices rotted on the journey. We added some more dry leaves lying on the ground in the park and threw in some more soil I brought from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn to increase the diversity of the micro and macroorganisms in the compost bucket. They really enjoyed the “hands-on” group process of making the compost mixture. There was so much to comment on, learn and connect about.

I asked them what they each wanted to get out of the course. Bryan wanted to know how to make really good compost, Felix wanted to learn about the different systems to make compost, Sophia wanted to know how to compost indoors or when one doesn’t have a back yard, Tremayne wanted to know how to compost without it smelling badly, Senley wanted to know how someone can make money from composting, and last, Eli had yet to tell me what he wanted to know. He did mention being interested in wanting to make compost with certain ingredients that improve the health of a particular plant - for instance, making compost using only chamomile flower heads and stalk debris to add to next year’s chamomile garden bed.  

Today was a day to discuss soil, compost ecology, carbon and nitrogen cycling, and see some compost critters or macroorganisms. We’d be doing this at the LIC Roots Community Garden and the LIC Community Garden.

We headed to LIC Roots Community Garden; a garden in the thick of Long Island City’s industrial buildings. It’s a small and narrow garden. The only composter they had was a large tumbler that was on some gears that made it easy to turn with a crank-like handle. We discussed the advantages and disadvantages of a compost bin like the tumbler. The advantages were: the ease in turning and thus ease in aerating the mass; a sealed system that prevents pests and rain from getting in; it’s not messy; it can produce compost quickly; odor is not usually a problem; no nutrient leaching into the ground. The disadvantages are the lack of contact to soil which would allow more macroorganisms like worms to enter the pile; tumblers are costly; the volume is relatively small; the system works best when material is added all at once. We took a few scoops out of the tumbler to check out the macrorganisms in the pile. The students were all over the roly polys and sow bugs. We found a spider in the pile, some ants, but very few or no worms. The students got a big surprise when a centipede crawled quickly into view and then out of view. They all jumped back and asked, “what is that?” I explained was it was and the role it played in the pile. They were predators. They are as scary to their prey as they are to us. We talked about the difference between millipedes and centipedes which are often mistaken for each other. I showed them the Food Web of the Compost Pile diagram from a page in Worms Eat My Garbage but they were distracted by looking at and for compost critters in the compost sample, the pill bugs, and the one or two worms we found. They enjoyed having physical contact with the decomposers, except the centipede.

            I also asked the students to smell the compost (it smelled earthy) and feel it between their finger tips. Our fingers are sensitive enough to distinguish soil types. There was lots of sand in the LIC Roots Community Garden compost as well as organic matter, some clay, and probably some silt too, though I have difficulty distinguishing silt. We discussed the components of soil which include varying proportions of sand, silt, clay, rocks, air, water, and organic material or humus. I asked them to think about the trouble in growing plants in a very sandy soil. “What happens to water when it is poured into sand?” I asked. They said it drains right through the sand in a matter of seconds. This allowed me to explain that only a few plants can thrive in just sandy soil because most plants need soil that can hold water for longer amounts of time so the plant roots have time to absorb the water and absorb the nutrients in the water. They seemed to understand this. A 100 percent clay soil on the other extreme would not allow water to drain and plants could end up standing in pools of water for long periods of time which for many plants could cause root damage. A soil with a balanced proportion of each soil particle size would be the most ideal soil for most plants. I discussed how compost could help amend many soils because compost itself was able to hold water and nutrients for the amount of time plants needed. I wanted to demonstrate these concepts with better visual aids. I had a sample of sandy soil but no other samples. It was amazing to me how little they and I knew about the soil that feeds us. They had taken Earth Science way back and hardly remembered it.

The discussion of soil brought us to the question, why is healthy soil important? Healthy soil is important for healthy plants and plants are important to us as food, building materials, for fresh oxygenated air and more. Plants grow best if they are getting what they need to grow – nutrients, soil, air, water, sunlight, space. This whole discussion led us to going over the carbon and nitrogen cycles which tied in nicely with the discussion we had in the previous class about greens having a higher ratio of nitrogen to carbon than browns; browns were considered high carbon materials, greens as high nitrogen materials.

It’s interesting how many of the topics in composting revolve around what does so and so need to live, whether it is bacteria (since they are the ones doing most of the decomposition), plants, worms, or humans. And what’s even more interesting is that we all basically need the same things.

We left the LIC Roots Community Garden to go to the LIC Community Garden, which was a very small, quaint, neat garden. The garden had several tumblers, an earth machine, garden cuttings and debris only pile (no food scraps), and a wooden frame compost bin. We looked into all the bins and discussed their conditions. Was it finished compost? Did it smell? Was it too wet or too dry? Did it need mixing?

            We ended our day with the banana experiment, an experiment idea from the NYC Master Composter Manual. The experiment was about watching how different environments affect the decomposition process. The environments would be air, water, soil, sunlight, and no or very little oxygen. We cut up a banana peel into many same-sized pieces. Then we placed 3-4 pieces into each small jar. Unfortunately the jars were not the same size; they should be for a fair experiment.  One jar was sealed with just banana pieces in it. It was labeled the air jar. In another, jar2, we poured water into the bananas; the water jar. In a third jar we placed soil with the banana pieces. The fourth jar was also just banana peel pieces and the instructions were to keep it in the sun. In the fifth jar the banana peel pieces were dropped and sealed in a Ziploc bag. All the jars were to be kept in the dark, except the one to be kept in the sunlight. They were excited and curious about the experiment and so was I. They took them home and we had to report what happens in two weeks.

We ended class on a fun, happy, cheerful note. Next week they would be attending a Climate Justice Youth Summit with Leanne Spaulding from Western Queens Compost Initiative and I would see them the following weekend for our third class. 

Junior Composters take a hard look at food in Queens


August 2011

From Victoria Gershik, Junior Composter Instructor

Saturday, August 6th was the first day of the Junior Composter Course, though since meeting Stephanos through a field trip with TreesNY, some of the Junior Composters have been coming out to help him on Saturdays with transporting the organic materials collected from the farmer’s market public drop-offs. “It’s fun hanging out with Stephanos,” they told me. Fun is important when it comes to lighting up people about composting. 

On our first day of the course we visited the Sunnyside Community Garden, located at Barnett Avenue and 50th Street. There we opened up bags left outside of the gate to be added to the two bin compost system sitting close to the front of the garden. Opening up the plastic bags filled with a surprise array of wets filled with summer melon rinds, uneaten corn, corn cobs and husks, whole squashes that were never eaten, and lovely thawing juices trapped in bottom of plastic bags, was fun. Sophia, one of the Junior Composters, commented on how she enjoyed seeing what people brought to be composted because she could get an inside to the lives of people, see what they were eating or not eating and even learn about new foods she could eat she had not known about before. We found a metal spoon in one of the bags and made sure it stayed out of the compost pile because a metal spoon would take a long, long time to compost. Here's a photo of us with the spoon. We also took turns using the compost aerator. It was their first time using the tool and they saw how fun and easy it was to use versus using a pitchfork or shovel.









The day began 8:30 am at Tornsey playground/Lou Lodati Park in Sunnyside on Skillman Ave and 41st St. Our meeting place was at the farmer’s market community compost drop-off site coordinated by WQCI. We waited for everyone to arrive and everyone included six Junior Composters, Eli, Sophia, Tremayne, Felix, Bryan, and Senley.  They were each given a canvas bag and materials inside included a class schedule, a Walt Whitman poem “This Compost”, pages from the book Let It Rot, and New York City Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse, and Recycling (NYC BWPRR) pamphlets and info sheets on composting. Next week they would each receive the books Let It Rot and Worms Eat My Garbage to keep.

Once everyone arrived we sat in a circle on the ground and shared our backgrounds and why we were here for the course. Five of the Junior Composters had summer jobs at TreesNY and thought it would complement their knowledge of what they were learning working for TreesNY. Senley, one of the five, after meeting Stephanos through the TreesNY field trip to Brooklyn Grange, a roof-top one-acre farm in Queens, decided to come out and help Stephanos for many weekends before he even knew about the course. He only recently emigrated from Haiti where him and his family owned, worked, and lived on a farm. He wanted to be around a farm and then touted the class to his fellow TreesNY co-workers. Some of his co-workers decided to sign up for the course also because they knew they would be receiving a stipend for their participation which would come in handy for next year's school supply costs, college applications fees and among other living costs. Some of the Junior Composters were starting the course with more passion about waste prevention than the others; letting something as precious as the life energy of food scraps, plant cuttings, leaves, etc. going into landfills was a waste and a shame. It made more sense to them for compost to me made and further replenish food gardens or trees instead of adding to the mass of a landfill. I enjoyed the circle to hear them share about themselves and why they were here. I got to introduce myself and tell them how much composting is part of my life. 

We headed to Brooklyn Grange where we learned from Eli, one of the Junior Composters, the system they were using was called windrow composting. Windrow composting is simply when organic materials are piled into long rows for ease of turning, aeration, adding organic material, and creating insulation and thus a habitat for the diverse microorganisms that help break down the organic matter. There were two rows: one pile was extremely warm on the inside and looked to be almost done composting and the other was a pile with freshly added compost materials. Felix pulled out a thick log out of the first pile and we all felt it. It was very warm to the touch. We talked about the warmth meaning the bacteria were busy eating and as a by-product of their digestion giving off heat, like we do. We discussed the difference between the two piles. I’d ask a question and see if they could figure out what was going on. Then, we all grabbed a handful of the almost finished compost, felt it, smelt it and discussed what finished compost was. Then we discussed what is composting and smelt the second pile. I lifted a watermelon piece in the process of decomposition and they smelt it. It smelt rancid. We talked about the difference in smells and why sometimes a compost pile smells. We talked about what was doing most of the breakdown and discussed their need for moisture, air, food (browns/dry/carbon-rich and greens/wets/nitrogen-rich), and space. And that their needs were similar to our own. Then we tried to think of all the reasons the roof-top farm was composting and why we as a city might want to compost. 

We ended our visit at Brooklyn Grange with turning the piles and a walk through the farm. We felt a sense of accomplishment from turning the compost pile and helping the farm along with their compost system. After the class was over the Junior Composters went over to the compost drop-off site at the Sunnyside farmer’s market and helped Stephanos bring up all the organic matter he had collected and helped him mix the organic matter into the compost pile at Brooklyn Grange. They were a committed bunch and I was happy to see that, meet them, and spend a morning thinking, feeling, breathing compost. Thank you supporters of the Junior Composters Course! You are making a difference!


This is where photos will go once we build flickr integration


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