Systems Approach to Food Waste Composting for Urban Agriculture

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2016: $199,943.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2019
Grant Recipient: University of Wisconsin
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Gregory Lawless
University of Wisconsin Extension

Annual Reports

Information Products


  • Fruits: berries (blueberries), berries (strawberries)
  • Vegetables: asparagus, beets, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbages, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucurbits, eggplant, garlic, greens (leafy), greens (lettuces), leeks, lentils, okra, onions, parsnips, peas (culinary), peppers, radishes (culinary), rutabagas, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, turnips


  • Crop Production: municipal wastes
  • Education and Training: decision support system
  • Farm Business Management: market study
  • Soil Management: soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: community planning


    Our project aims to address a constellation of social and environmental problems in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that can be seen as connected from a systems perspective and addressed collaboratively through a systems approach.

    First, tens of thousands of residents do not have adequate access to safe, affordable food even in the peak of growing season, partly because urban soils capable of producing fresh produce have been paved over, compacted and contaminated. Meanwhile, city residents and businesses generate an estimated 47,000 tons of food waste annually, and much of that organic matter is sent to a nearby landfill that serves four counties in Southeast Wisconsin. This presents two more problems: it contributes to the constrained capacity of the primary landfill accepting the city's municipal solid waste, and despite the landfill operator's efforts to capture the methane from organic decomposition, the EPA reports that significant quantities of methane escapes into the atmosphere and pose dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. (EPA 2016) A fourth problem is that older portions of Milwaukee sewer system are forced to release untreated wastewater into Lake Michigan during heavy rain events.

    By assembling an interdisciplinary, multi-sector team of partners, our project will create a plan that substantively addresses all of these four problems by diverting more of Milwaukee's food waste to composting, and utilizing the increased compost production to improve soil in the city for gardening, farming and rainwater absorption.

    A team of university faculty and students will interview and collect data from a diverse group of stakeholders in the Milwaukee region, including food waste generators, food waste haulers, composters, urban and peri-urban farmers, gardening organizations, and public agency staff. The information will be used to conduct supply chain analysis, to model the existing food-waste-to-compost system, and to compare different scenarios for expanding it. Frequent contact and meetings with stakeholders will use the results of our research and analysis to create of a collaborative, multi-year plan that could involve public and private infrastructure investments, policy changes, promotional campaigns, and other actions. The plan will aim to maintain a balance of food waste supply and demand compost demand as the system grows.

    We will share our process and results with other cities facing a similar set of interconnected problems by ramping up food waste composting at metropolitan scale.

    Project objectives:


    Through an interdisciplinary systems approach led by the University of Wisconsin Extension, UW-Milwaukee and UW-Madison, we will combine a macro-level analysis of food waste supply and compost demand with micro-level compost trials and supply chain analysis on a 1.25 acre urban farm in Milwaukee. The primary outcome will be a collaborative strategy to increase supply of affordable compost to enhance the profitability of urban farming that provides a model for other North Central Region cities.


    Food waste generators, haulers, composters, farmers, and public agency staff will share knowledge to design and launch a multi-year plan to increase supply of affordable compost that meets the varied needs of urban agriculture in Milwaukee. Participants will coordinate feedstock supply to minimize transportation costs and anticipate end-product demand. Information will be generated to guide public policy and investments in new sites for waste transfer and composting. Private sector efforts to generate soil for food insecure neighborhoods will be celebrated. Evaluation methods will track food waste diversion and compost utilization to guide future modifications and share results with other cities.


    Our primary product will be a collaborative, multi-year plan outlining specifically WHO (among food waste generators, haulers, composters and policy makers) will do WHAT (investments made, contracts signed, products delivered, policy actions taken, etc.), WHERE (site specific), WHEN (timeframe and sequential actions), and HOW (e.g. modified feedstock recipes, new transportation routes and transfer stations, web-based inventory management, etc.)

    Our planning process will collect and share information incrementally, gradually building a baseline of common knowledge and trust while respecting private interests and independence. The plan will enhance existing collaboration among some stakeholders while encouraging new partnerships and public-private sector alignment. Not everyone will choose to participate, but the plan will evolve with those who do. We will track any new collaborative activities that can be partially attributed to the planning process. The completed plan may only be five pages long but will include appendices supplied primarily by students supervised by academic faculty and staff.

    Collaboration occurs even in the most competitive industries and is especially critical in emergent systems like food waste composting. By pulling together this proposal, we feel confident that our project’s success will be of interest to other NCR cities. Another product will be a series of professional videos (20-30 minutes total) outlining our process and results. Finally, through compost trials and field days we will identity farmers’ compost-related educational needs by uploading new and existing peer-reviewed composting information to a website developed for urban agriculture in 2015 by one of our participating faculty:


    For such a large project with many interconnected parts, a critical evaluation tool will be the Work Plan Timeline we submitted as an attachment. This provides a month-by-month description of who is taking the lead on activities, where they will occur and who will provide support. It has been shared with all major participants, collaborators and advisors and will enable us quickly address why any activities are not proceeding as planned.

    As we have stated often, our primary deliverable will be a “collaborative multiyear plan” involving private stakeholders across the food waste-to-compost-to-farm supply chain as well as public sector agencies. Therefore, during the project we must evaluate whether the information we are assembling is sufficient and appropriate for developing that plan. For this assessment we will ask all collaborators to refer regularly to the 12 questions listed in our Approach to confirm whether our research is addressing them. The questions may also be amended and expanded over time. We cannot expect to answer every question completely, but we need everyone to feel confident that the quality of data is sufficient for individuals to make decisions with respect to an evolving collaborative plan.

    Our means of evaluating the finished plan will be qualitative and quantitative. Quantitatively, we will consider the number of participating private sector entities who sign onto the plan, their company size in terms of employees, the growth in the amount of food waste they are committing to divert from landfills to composting system generate, the number of urban and peri-urban farmers who are identified as interested compost customers, and the projected increase in the amount of compost that is distributed affordably to food insecure neighborhoods of Milwaukee. Long-term outcomes, like reduction in methane gas and increase in food security, cannot be evaluated as part of our project, but the collaborative multiyear plan will include measures to assess progress in those goals over time.

    Qualitatively, we will ask all project participants, including any who choose not to participate in the collaborative multiyear plan, whether or not the process was productive and fair, and what recommendations they would make to other cities seeking to replicate our efforts.

    We will also commit to using the evaluation metrics provided in the SARE application appendices (farmer participation, new collaboration, citations, etc.) during and following the project, and an expanded version of the outreach survey for our field days.

    Another important product is a set of videos that will help other communities learn from our effort. We will upload them to YouTube soon enough to solicit feedback from academic and community partners to help us evaluate whether the videos are effective at explaining our process and results in a compelling and useful way. Finally, for our commitment to assemble and upload relevant composting information to a national urban agriculture website, we will evaluate the quantity and quality of those resources.


    We see two different audiences for our project: the larger community in Milwaukee and SE Wisconsin; and other cities in the North Central Region and nationwide. Regarding the local audience, we could not possibly invite all potential Milwaukee area stakeholders into our SARE proposal process. Two important groups who are underrepresented are food waste generators (restaurants, supermarkets, cafeterias, breweries, coffee roasters, food processors) and neighborhood leaders and residents. Once the project is underway we will ask the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Milwaukee Community News Service to help us publicize the effort. And several of our partners—Will Allen, Antoine Carter, Gretchen Mead, Tim McCollow, etc.—have deep ties throughout the community and we ask them to raise awareness of other local leaders.

    As for the NCR and national audience, our main outreach product will be a series of professionally edited videos, 20-30 minutes in total, that use short interviews, photos, B-footage, and PowerPoint slides to provide an overview of the entire process of our project and its final results. Some of our academic partners have asked if they can publish results from their portion of the project work, and of course we will encourage and support that. But we believe the audiences we hope to reach—public agency staff, commercial composters, urban farmers, food security advocates, food waste generators looking for more environmental options—are more likely to gain value from audio-visual presentations. However, our Final Report to SARE will provide a readable text, tables and graphics summary of the project as well.

    We will distribute links to the videos and the Final Report via national list serves like the Community, Local and Regional Food Systems that includes Extension colleagues across the country, and we will offer to host at least six “GoToMeeting” webinars near the end and immediately following our project to discuss our process and results with leaders from individual cities in the North Central Region.

    Finally, we will be uploading resources on composting to the national urban agriculture website ( that was launched this year by one of our project’s academic advisors, Dr. Julie Dawson. The resources we add will consolidate existing resources that describe best practices or offer data and tools for improving composting efficiency and product quality using food waste, yard waste and other sources of nitrogen and carbon feedstocks. The materials will by vetted by Dawson with additional peer review as needed.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.