Full circle

GRUB resident uses compost from donated food scraps and other garbage to grow organic fruits and vegetables

GRUB’s Max Kee starts young fruit trees with the aid of compost made from food scraps he’s collected from restaurants around Chico.

GRUB’s Max Kee starts young fruit trees with the aid of compost made from food scraps he’s collected from restaurants around Chico.

photo by claire hutkins seda

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Max Kee doesn’t have your usual perspective on trash. What many people see as garbage—such as withered grocery-store produce and leftover food from local restaurants—Kee sees as a soil amendment for fruit trees, top-quality feedstock for pigs, and the perfect snack for chickens.

And so, three times a week, along with his partners, Elliot Proffitt and Tim Elliot at the GRUB Cooperative (Growing Resourcefully Uniting Bellies), Kee loads up an old Dodge pickup truck with garbage cans filled with plate scrapings, vegetable peels and compostable paper napkins that they collect from more than a dozen Chico establishments—a task he performs for free.

Almost 14 percent of the United States’ waste in 2010 was food waste, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—that’s second only to paper waste. Here in Chico, Kee had no problem finding restaurants, coffee shops and other venues willing to hold onto their food and paper waste to feed his compost passion. He hopes that his program not only diverts food away from the landfill, but also helps change peoples’ perspective on what is waste. “When we start looking at our wastes as valuable resources, you can’t help but realize we’re in total abundance,” said Kee.

The composting program Kee heads up—one of the three initial foci of the GRUB cooperative since its inception in 2007, along with its popular CSA (community-supported agriculture) farm, and a thriving sustainability-education program—started off with perhaps too much abundance. GRUB received a small startup grant from Chico State’s SFAC (Sustainability Fund Allocation Committee), a student-created program that sets aside a few dollars of each student’s tuition to fund sustainability projects on campus and around town. Kee jumped right in.

“I started going around every single day picking up compost—and it was way too much,” said Kee of those early days. “I really had no idea what to do with all the food scraps.”

Kee and crew started off collecting compost on bikes fitted with custom-built trailers, hauling it initially to an eighth-acre back yard. He quickly moved the fledgling operation to GRUB’s then-newly-acquired location on Dayton Road in south Chico. With the extra space, and the realization that few other bikers were willing to risk getting a flat while hauling hundreds of pounds of compost, Kee switched to a large truck, which he loads these days with roughly 800 gallons of compost a week. He estimates that over the course of the almost five years he’s been running the program, he’s diverted about 130,000 gallons of organic matter from the local landfill.

Over the years, Kee has refined the program, now regularly picking up compostable items three days a week from 17 downtown establishments. He provides these venues with clean bins as part of the free pick-up service. Kee spends about three hours each time he goes out to gather the bins—about an hour and a half to pick up the scraps, and then additional time to distribute the scraps to GRUB’s chickens and pigs, clean out the bins and truck, and clean up the scraps after the animals have gone through them. “There’s always twist ties, plastic straws … metal utensils. Cleanup is just a part of it,” he explained.

Kee has planted an extensive fruit orchard, fertilized by compost made from coffee grounds from Empire Coffee and Naked Lounge and leftovers from diners at Noodle House and the T-Bar. Dozens of chickens pick through the large compost piles at the GRUB property on Dayton Road in search of insects as the scraps from Chico Natural Foods’ vegetable trimmings decompose. Elliot, also a GRUB resident, feeds his pigs gourmet scrapings collected from Sicilian Caf” and Leon Bistro.

Kee takes a look at one of the large compost piles in his fruit orchard that his chickens peck through looking for insects.

photo by claire hutkins seda

Kee still collects from some of his very first “customers,” including Bustolini’s Deli & Coffee House. Kee says that Bob Backstrom, the owner of Bustolini’s, was tired of throwing away his kitchen scraps, and encouraged Kee early on to start a regular program. “He was really persistent…[so] I was willing to try it out because I knew that at least one person really wanted to start.”

Every so often, said Kee, “I get up some gumption to add a few more restaurants, and just walk in and say, ‘Hey, I’ve been doing this thing for four, almost five years now, and it seems to be working out really well and people are happy with it.'” And so he’s recently added newer establishments like Bacio Catering & Carry Out and upscale wood-fired pizza restaurant Grana.

Kee began collecting scraps from Sipho’s Restaurant & Cafe, the neighboring Jamaican eatery also on Dayton Road, as soon as it opened its doors last summer.

“We give them our compost, and I get certain types of vegetables from them when they’re in season. … It’s like one big family, you know?” said Sipho Merritt, the owner of the eponymously named restaurant, who calls Kee “a hard worker and a dedicated person—a brother to me.”

“That’s my favorite part. … We actually develop a relationship with the people who work in these [restaurants],” said Kee. “They’re curious, [asking,] ‘How are the pigs? Did the mama give birth? How are the chickens doing?'”

His composting program now takes the food scraps full circle. His scrap donors have started buying produce from him that has been grown using compost that was produced from their scraps: “We are starting to get more and more of our food that is … being grown with their scraps—at least supplementally—back to them.”

Kee believes that as he builds more relationships with local businesses the compost project will help him break even on such things as the cost of gas and the bins versus what he reaps in terms of compost, eggs and saleable produce, something that he isn’t currently certain is the case.

“It just feels like it’s starting to open up more and more windows,” he said. Tin Roof Bakery & Caf” recently purchased two boxes of peaches and a box of potatoes from him. “I probably wouldn’t have made that connection if we hadn’t been picking up the compost.”

Kee hopes that the longer he continues his project, the more natural it will seem for people to compost food scraps rather than toss them.

“More than anything, the importance is in the mentality around it—that we’ve been doing it … for nearly five years now. It’s becoming commonplace that someone goes and gets the valuable food scraps,” said Kee. “It feels really good to hold a space for that to be normal in our community, that the food [being composted] is valued.”