Leo Pollock

Leo Pollock's picture
Basic Info
Wild Gift Class Year: 
2015
Better World Expertise: 
Conservation & Stewardship
Education
Public & Institutional Policy
Sustainable Food & Agriculture
Current Occupation: 
Co-founder, The Compost Plant; Network Coordinator, Rhode Island Food Policy Council

Having been born and raised in the urban metropolis of Los Angeles, CA, the path to finding my passion in the messy nexus between organic waste and healthy soil hasn’t exactly been linear. I first fell in love with soil and agriculture during the years I was involved with the student-run organic farm as an undergraduate at Dartmouth College.  But it wasn’t until I spent a year teaching on the island atoll of Enewetak in the Marshall Islands after graduating from Dartmouth that I began to fully understand the power of soil.  My year in Enewetak introduced me to the enormous potential for creating social change through sustainable food systems, and how local food is a critical connection point between community health and environmental health.

Enewetak was one of the islands used by the United States for nuclear testing in the 1950’s, and the islands were scraped of all topsoil before being resettled in 1980. While the US Department of Energy initially claimed that it would be impossible to start an agriculture program on Enewetak and insisted that USDA canned food serve as a complete substitute for local food, the community came together after the resettlement and, with the assistance of a Pacific Island agricultural specialist, started a composting program to build the soil base of the island.  By the time I arrived as an elementary school teacher, the island’s agricultural program was producing local coconut, breadfruit, papaya, guava, lime, lemon, and banana.

After my year in the Marshall Islands, I completed a Master’s degree in Sustainable Development at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, focusing on the need for, and challenges inherent in, partnerships between businesses and non-profits.  After completing my Master’s degree, I was ready to engage in community-based, on-the-ground work that brought me back in touch with soil and food. I moved to Providence, Rhode Island to work for the Southside Community Land Trust (SCLT), an urban agriculture organization that has been at the forefront of converting vacant lots in low-income Providence neighborhoods into urban agriculture oases (and preserving that land in permanent trust) for over 30 years. In Providence, I experienced a sense of déjà vu: urban soils devastated by the City’s industrial past.  But just as I had seen in the Marshall Islands, SCLT was building healthy soil and transforming the urban landscape with compost. Again, the message to me was clear: healthy soils grow healthy plants, healthy plants feed healthy people.

Rhode Island is one of the most densely populated states in the country, and the largest growth in food production is, and will continue to be, in the State’s urban and suburban communities.  SCLT taught me that applying compost is the only responsible way to remediate soils, improve their production capacity, and sustain intensive agricultural production indefinitely.  Rhode Island also has a serious waste problem: in 20-25 years, the State's only landfill will reach full capacity, and nearly one-third of what Rhode Islanders currently throw away is compostable. Recognizing that composting infrastructure in Rhode Island is critically underdeveloped, my business partner and I incorporated The Compost Plant in October of 2013. This April, we began pilot collections of food scraps, and in our first six months of operation, have diverted over 65,000 gallons (nearly 200 tons) of organic material from Rhode Island’s waste stream.

With The Compost Plant, I want to demonstrate that a business can be truly sustainable: creating opportunities for community and economic empowerment, providing goods and services that financially sustain operations, and having beneficial impacts on the local ecosystem.  I see the opportunity to grow a business that provides jobs in a State with the second highest unemployment rate in the country, and helps build the foundation of a stronger food system in Rhode Island by turning a current “waste” into a resource. The Compost Plant is positioned to be the first full-service commercial compost operation in Rhode Island: producing high-quality compost, and providing organic waste hauling pickup for local restaurants, food-processors, and food businesses. Using forced air technology, The Compost Plant will showcase how composting can happen in and near urban areas by keeping a small physical footprint and modeling exceptional odor management. In the decades ahead, our reliance on fossil fuels for fertilizer to support food production will reach a breaking point.  Producing compost not only ensures the health and vitality of our soils, it ensures the health and viability of our communities.