Below are the 5 finalists for the TEDxManhattan Challenge. Take our survey and vote for your favorite. The winner will speak live at TEDxManhattan 2013!
1. Compost Cab
Jeremy Brosowsky, Founder, Agricity LLC
“What if we could take our garbage and grow food in it?”
That’s the question I asked my 7-year old daughter and 6-year old son two years ago. Then I watched their eyes light up, and I knew we were onto something.
Compost Cab is in the magic business. We take food waste and turn it into food.
We launched our company in 2010 to pursue two goals:
1. Make it easier for people to compost in cities, and
2. Make it easier for urban agriculture to thrive.
Our core business, with hundreds of residential subscribers in and around the nation’s capital, is straightforward. You sign up online. We deliver you a rodent-proof, odor-free compost collection bin, along with an Urban Composting Made Easy guide. You follow our dead-simple directions and fill the bin with your food scraps. And then once a week we come and collect it, leaving you with a nice clean bin, and a clean conscience to match.
We then deliver your food scraps whenever possible to one of our not-for-profit urban farm partners, where your scraps (an excellent source of nitrogen) are combined with wood chips, leaf mulch, and other carboniferous material. Add water, oxygen, and time, and presto—fertile, nutrient-rich soil! The farms use most of this soil to grow more food for the communities they serve. And once you’ve been in our system for a while, you, as residential subscriber, can have some of the finished compost, too.
We’ve proven the model works over the past 24 months. Now we’re poised to take the next step in our growth. We’ve developed a scalable platform—think of it as Compost Cab in a box—to bring Compost Cab to communities around the country beginning this fall. We’re excited to bring Urban Composting Made Easy to cities and towns everywhere!
We also offer commercial composting services in partnership with haulers (why put more trucks on the road—there’s plenty of capacity in the hauling system) community compost drop-off at local farmers markets, and work with local schools to integrate composting into their curricula. In aggregate, we currently divert more than 4 tons of organic material from landfills, help create enough new soil to support four urban farming projects, and touch thousands of people with the habit of composting each week. Compost Cab makes an explicit connection between food waste and food production. Farm-to-table is good, but farm-to-table-to-farm is better. By making that connection, between what we eat and where it comes from, we take what was once considered trash and turn it into a valuable resource. And a profitable business—which is what makes it sustainable.
I’m Jeremy Brosowsky. I had the idea for Compost Cab in the back of a greenhouse in Milwaukee, WI, on March 21st, 2010. This is not my first start-up. It’s my third. And I have the scars to prove it. I’m a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, the London School of Economics, and Will Allen’s commercial urban agriculture program. I have four kids between the ages of 4 and 9, and live two miles from the White House.
Our team is appropriate to the size of our existing business. In addition to me, there’s Will Herman, who grew up on a farm in Maine and recently completed a stint as a Teach for America fellow. We work with many terrific part-timers, and a web/app team at Singlebrook Technology that helps us develop the tools we need to efficiently scale our business—Leon Miller-Out and his team have serious chops.
Our core missions, making it easy for people to compost, and making it easier for urban agriculture to thrive, make deep integration into the community fundamental to what we do.
Let’s start with our home market of Washington, DC. For starters, we collect food scraps from hundreds of homes each week in neighborhoods across the city and the surrounding suburbs. Our weekly pickup service enables people to compost who either didn’t or couldn’t already do so. We partner with FreshFarm Markets, the largest manager of producer-only farmers markets in the region, to bring community compost drop-off to two of their largest markets—we collected nearly 8 tons of food scraps at the Dupont Circle Farmers Market in our first year there! We work with dozens of businesses and other commercial-scale customers to bring composting to their employees (or in the case of apartment buildings and condos, to their residents).
We serve our local community here in Washington by making it easy for people and organizations to compost. Then, whenever possible, we deliver the material we collect to our not-for-profit farm partners. We currently work with four, each in a different neighborhood and focused primarily on serving their hyper-local community:
The ECO City Farm in Edmonston, MD, has been a partner since we started. Using sustainable – and mostly scalable – techniques, they grow beautiful food and train new farmers. Nearly every ounce of soil on their farm was built from scratch from the clean stream of nitrogen that we make available to them for free.
The Common Good City Farm in Ledroit Park, DC, is barely 2 miles away from our community drop point at the Dupont Circle Farmers Market. Most Sunday afternoons after market, we go straight to Common Good, and work with them to process hundreds of pounds of food scraps into compost.
The Farm at Walker Jones sits adjacent to a DC public elementary school serving nearly 400 low-income students about a mile north of the U.S. Capitol. The farm itself began a few years ago when a bunch of community members took scythes in hand and cleared what had been a vacant lot filled with 6-foot tall weeds. We help them build their soil fertility by revamping and overseeing their composting operation. We also participate in workshops, for students city-wide as well as for educators from around the region who look to Walker Jones as a model for school gardens and farms.
Then there’s the Washington Youth Garden at the National Arboretum, who we’re helping develop a new composting system, fed by our clean stream of food scraps. We tailor our efforts to the needs of each individual farm, helping develop and disseminate best practices along the way. We envision doing so with hundreds of farms in the years to come.
Making it easier for people to compost is part of our mission precisely because of its benefits to the community. We like to think of composting as a Trojan horse for sustainability writ large. Washington DC recently put together a 20-year sustainability plan that identified 11 distinct goals. Our efforts benefited nine of them. Composting touches everything.
2. Neighborhood Foods
Allison Blansfield, Farm and Youth Program Manager, The Enterprise Center Community Development Corporation
The Enterprise Center Community Development Corporation (TEC-CDC) and Urban Tree Connection (UTC) have come together to develop Neighborhood Foods (NF), an innovative and holistic community food production and distribution system. This dynamic model empowers disadvantaged youth from low-income neighborhoods to run an array of food-focused programs, from urban farming production, to value-added food product development, to distribution and retail through farm stands, farmers markets and a low-income CSA program. The result is a complete local food system that drives revitalization of high-need neighborhoods by 1) increasing access to fresh and healthy foods in designated food deserts and 2) developing a local food economy that accelerates small food businesses and retains food dollars in the immediate region.
Most notably, NF is operated with a core goal of intensive youth development. The model empowers local youth to develop the necessary personal and professional skills to themselves run NF programs—positions of real responsibility that empower young people to become true change agents in their own communities. NF supplements this hands-on experience with deep classroom education and training in business education, the urban agriculture and food sector, and leadership and business professionalism and etiquette. Our highly trained staff provide support during all activities. With this foundation in place, NF succeeds in building generations of youth driven for career success and invested in the revitalization of their own communities.
Health Hurdles in Philadelphia: According to a study by The Food Trust, Philadelphia has “the second lowest number of supermarkets per capita of major cities in the nation.” This directly corresponds to higher levels of consumption of take-out food and decreased consumption fresh produce, leading to profound public health implications. Significant rates of diet-related diseases: 59% of adults are overweight or obese, 38% are diagnosed with high blood pressure, and 22% exhibit high cholesterol.
Youth Development Hurdles: The poor quality of public school administration has failed to provide students adequate preparation for higher education and the workforce. Coupled with limited job opportunities, these conditions result in generations of urban youth that lack the resources needed to develop into community leaders.
NF addresses these ingrained trends in parallel; our model re-engages youth in practical, hands-on education and training, and leverages those young leaders to directly combat social and economic barriers at the root level through the development of a complete local food system.
3. The FarmBus
Mark Lilly, Owner, Farm to Family
I built a micro farmers’ market on a school bus targeting food deserts, schools, and senior homes. We are about 3 years into the project. I bought the bus and built/designed the interior and exterior, built relationships with local organic farms to get their products to market. We educate the community about local sustainable foods. Our goal is to have a FarmBus in every community in the country that will be a resource people can utilize to know where their food comes from, educate themselves, support local farmers, eat healthier and to create a sustainable community based food distribution system that will be set in place (a proactive measure) when the old (current) toxic unsustainable food system fails. I am also a Veteran that wants to help other veterans with this project. I am concerned about PTSD and want to use my FarmBus as therapy, job placement and community support for military bases and their families. I want to get good food on our military bases and educate the children (and adults) through our FarmBus project. I want to motivate, touch, move, and inspire as many people as I can reach! If I can’t reach them all I want to teach others (through this model) how to do it! I currently have one bus on the road in the Richmond area, and have 5 buses ready to develop. I would like to place at least one more bus in Richmond, but also move into other markets.
We feel that we have impacted thousands of people not only in our community but all over the world through food and education. Many people have been inspired to replicate the FarmBus by following the simple and highly effective model. Others have been inspired to either change old habits, promote a local sustainable food system, put priorities in place and called them into action. We have directly introduced better food into our community, supported our local farmers and educated our youth about local food-where it comes from and how it tastes! We feel that we are also part of the growing movement that seeks to dismantle social injustice and unite people of all colors through food and culture. People have told us they are growing gardens, building compost, cooking at home with family and friends, and learning to can, freeze and dry food to become food secure. People are using food to promote good health. I visit senior homes too and they get a big charge out of seeing the bus, the food, having a good old fashioned conversation. It’s good therapy.
4. Farm to Freezer
Cheryl Kollin, Project Lead, Bethesda Cares and Full Plate Ventures
Farm to Freezer was born out of a conversation at our TEDxManhattan 2011 viewing party. I was talking with Sue Kirk, ED of Bethesda Cares whose mission is to move homeless into permanent housing. They provide meals to the homeless and receive a donation of fresh, local food from our community’s farm market. Last year they received more food than they could use before it went bad. I said, “Well, we need to create a Farm to Freezer program!” Bethesda Cares serves 20,000 meals per year to the homeless population in the community through a dedicated and caring network of church and community organizations, businesses, and government agencies.
Bethesda Cares is the official ‘gleaner’ of the Bethesda Fresh Farm Market. Farmers, including Spiral Path Farm, donate fresh produce not sold at the Saturday market, donating an average of 300 lbs. of local produce per week—including bushels of tomatoes, peppers, corn on the cob, and zucchini. When crops are at peak harvest, Bethesda Cares receives more fresh food than it can use before the food spoils.
In June 2012, Bethesda Cares and Full Plate Ventures launched Farm to Freezer with support from a rich community network of volunteers, churches’ donated kitchen space, and business support. Bethesda Cares’ meals manager, who cooks a hot lunch five days a week, will use the frozen food in preparing healthier meals for its clients. Since our launch in June, we’ve partnered with 150 volunteers, 4 churches, our county’s pre-release program of residents, a culinary arts training program, and have received in-kind donations from local businesses. This season we have gleaned 5,000 lbs. of fresh, organic vegetables. We turned them into 1500 lbs. of tomato sauce and blanched, roasted and vaccuum-sealed packets frozen and ready for incorporating into healthier meals for the homeless and hungry all year. This food will serve 2,500 people throughout the year.
Our goals are to scale up this project and turn it into a social enterprise. There is huge potential to glean from other farmers, provide to other feeding programs, and through the sale of some of the organic tomato sauce and veggies, become self-supporting over time. We will test market the product in farmer’s markets and small grocery this fall and write a business plan over the winter.
Farm to Freezer Benefits the Whole Community
1). Provides healthier, unadulterated food for Bethesda Cares’ client meals
2). Supports farmers through tax-deductible donations
3). Reduces the amount of waste from farm market surplus
4). Provides Church member as well as community-wide volunteer opportunities
5) Raises community awareness about homelessness, nutrition, and locally-grown food.
5. Detroit Youth Food Brigade
Jen Rusciano, Co-Director, Detroit Youth Food Brigade
The Detroit Youth Food Brigade (DYFB) is a collaboration between local high school students, food businesses, and neighborhood markets to promote food justice and build the local food economy in Detroit. Through the vehicle of food entrepreneurship and engagement with food system challenges, DYFB transforms Detroit youth into the solution-oriented leaders of the future.
DYFB launched in 2011 as a summer program to engage high school youth with healthy food and an entrepreneurial experience wholesaling and selling fresh and prepared products at the largest outdoor market in the country, Detroit’s Eastern Market. In 2012, the success of this pilot attracted funding to grow from one day per week to five days per week, expand to neighborhood markets throughout the city, and develop intern-mentor relationships with local food businesses. We partnered each youth team with a mentor food business, where they learned to craft artisanal food products and gained an appreciation for the art of food business directly from an established entrepreneur. Youth leaders then sold their mentor’s product at neighborhood markets around the city, expanding the offerings to improve the destination appeal of local markets and growing the market reach of business owners, all while learning the skills and modeling the qualities needed to be a successful leader.
This impactful summer program appealed to one of our partner high schools, the Detroit Institute of Technology at Cody Rouge, whose principal and staff invited DYFB to pilot a classroom curriculum. The result is the Good Food, Good Business, Good People course developed around the core values of DYFB: youth empowerment, local food entrepreneurship, healthy living, and knowledge and engagement in the food system. Underpinning the hands-on exploration of these skills is the students’ semester-long project—designing and launching their own triple-bottom line healthy food business. Student leaders develop knowledge and skills through classes, time with established business mentors, health trainings from medical professionals, visits with local farmers, and culinary adventures creating and experimenting in the kitchen. At the end of the semester, student teams will present their business plan in front of peers and business owners, and will put their knowledge into practice by debuting their final products at the Detroit Eastern Market’s Winter Market. These pilot products will become the building blocks of a DYFB product line that will engage future cohorts in product development, brand management, and sales.
DYFB is run by a 4-member director team. It was founded by Amy Berkhoudt, an English teacher at Detroit high school the Cesar Chavez Academy, and Noam Kimelman, owner of mission-driven business Fresh Corner Cafe which works to nourish neighborhoods and increase access to fresh and healthy foods in Detroit. To grow the breadth and depth of the program in the summer of 2012, a teacher from Cesar Chavez Academy, Anna Choi, and Farm to School educator, Jen Rusciano, joined the team. The program is shaped and expanded by the experiences of the more than 90 youth who have participated since its inception. Directors and youth represent the City of Detroit and all are committed to living, working, and playing in this great community.
DYFB generates direct benefits and ripple effects at multiple levels: within communities, across the City, and throughout lives. Our goal is to equip young leaders with the lifelong skills, knowledge, and solution-based thinking to address challenges facing their community. Through the vehicle of food entrepreneurship, DYFB youth achieve this goal while contributing to the local economy, addressing health issues, and building food justice in Detroit’s neighborhoods.
Students develop valuable skills and a direct understanding of launching, managing, and growing a thriving food business through the hands-on internship experience in the summer and building their own product during the school year. Practical food business skills like sales, customer service and culinary arts compliment the equally key qualities of creative thinking, responsibility, and teamwork. DYFB students engage with relevant issues in the Detroit food system while directly building community food access, the local food economy, and business diversity.
Our youth leaders not only strengthen themselves, but also directly support local food businesses and our community. Businesses grow their legacy by passing on technical and knowledge-intensive skills in entrepreneurship and food-based production, while benefiting from the support interns offer. Mentor businesses and local farms gain greater product distribution at neighborhood markets. Our community experiences increased access and support for healthy food outlets, cultivation of a healthier food culture, growth in the local economy, and effective engagement of its youth.
Stories from our students, business mentors, and community members are the reason we believe in this program: students report positive changes in their eating habits and visions of a future where their business venture grows wellness and hope in neighborhoods; business mentors celebrate successful market days and increased demand for their products; community members relish the diversity of foods and conversation at more robust neighborhood markets. Through this wide-reaching program, DYFB shapes future leaders and builds an environment of empowerment and proactive engagement around food in the City of Detroit.