< Back to Issue

Taking Back the Narrative

A Dialogue with FoodPLUS Detroit's Renee Wallace about Culture Change, Consciousness, and Compost

Gretel Van Wieren, Stephen Rachman, Robert Chiles, Tiffany Tsantsoulas Fall 2018

DOI: 10.25335/M5/PPJ.1.2-5

Download PDF Download Image


This paper is based on an interview with Renee Wallace, executive director of FoodPLUS Detroit and CEO of Doers Consulting Alliance. The interview was a guided conversation led by three members of the Humanities Without Walls/New Ethics of Food project team as a way to better understand the on-the-ground, lived experiences of community-based composting activists in Detroit. The paper analyzes four themes that emerged from that conversation (systems thinking, consciousness raising, barriers, and change making) to suggest that they are important to consider in educating communities about the significance of food waste composting.

A word cloud made out of the text of this article in the form of a rolling field beneath a blue sky with a rising sun.

As a way to better understand the challenges involved with developing community-based composting efforts, three of this paper’s authors—Robert Chiles, Stephen Rachman, and Tiffany Tsantsoulas—interviewed Renee Wallace, executive director of FoodPLUS Detroit and CEO of Doers Consulting Alliance and a co-author of this paper.(1) FoodPLUS Detroit is a nonprofit community-based organization dedicated to accelerating and facilitating innovative food systems projects. They are currently working towards establishing a community-scale commercial composting system, which can help address both the practical and conceptual dimensions of sustainability in the community. At the heart of the organization’s concern are the following questions: How does a person recognize that food waste recycling is an important part of the food system? What are the best ways to raise community consciousness of the ethics of food waste?

Wallace is actively engaged in the everyday struggle to persuade her local community to alter their attitudes and practices regarding food waste and composting. Her work with FoodPLUS Detroit is an exemplary means to explore and test how ethical concepts surrounding waste function within communities. Wallace is ideally situated to face the challenges of excess food waste in practical and personal terms. As she frames it: “How do I now show up with a food waste collection system intact at meetings, portable, and I can talk about it in ways that start to cultivate that change where I touch you as a person first [and] then you start to bring it into your practices?” The problem of food justice in this public context becomes at once philosophical and personal, systemic and spiritual, and the full interview with Wallace (appended to this essay) highlights all of these elements. The Wallace interview provided an opportunity to test the extent to which our new conceptualization of waste in general and food waste in particular could be implemented in the real-world setting of FoodPLUS Detroit’s community-based composting effort. Through a keyword analysis of the discussion with Wallace, we could better see where our interpretive strategies (the problematic and critique of food waste as developed in the other papers from this special issue) were relevant or not, effective or ineffective.

1. Rethinking Food Waste: An Interview with Renee V. Wallace

As a way to better understand, illuminate, and challenge the perspectives on food waste presented in the other papers in this special issue and move toward a new ethics of food culture, in what follows we highlight key concepts, metaphors, and themes from the community-based composting initiative FoodPLUS Detroit based on our interview with Renee Wallace.

FoodPLUS Detroit’s efforts are intended to expand the capacity of the local community to

  • Close the food system loop by diverting, recovering, and recycling compostable food waste
  • Improve soil health and quality by applying locally produced compost
  • Expand local language to include “food ethics” as a comprehensive term that embodies food security, justice, sovereignty, and equity
  • Increase food waste collection and composting
  • Promote sustainability through the lens of a food ethics framework

The neighborhood-based, community-scale approach (as opposed to a centralized, municipal-scale approach) of the project is critical, as most of the focus on waste management in Detroit has been on municipal operations (e.g., to “keep leaves and other recyclable materials out of the incinerator and the landfill”). As individuals and local groups grow more food within the city, both food waste and the need for compost will increase. These needs will also be addressed within the boundaries of the city. Further, there are several challenges associated with the ability of growers to scale-up and produce enough compost for their own farms and to meet the needs of other local growers. Yet, concerns for the project also include historical and more values-oriented worries long associated with food waste in urban spaces, for example, odor, vermin, noise, traffic, and aesthetics. Overarching questions to address these concerns that frame FoodPLUS’s work include the following:

  • How can food ethics be incorporated in developing the culture and practice of food waste recycling and composting?
  • How can a focus on food ethics help overcome barriers to adoption of food waste recycling and development of a community-based compost ecosystem?
  • What part could ethics play in selecting compost production sites within the boundaries of the city?
  • How could food ethics be taught in easy to understand, accessible ways?
  • How might a food ethics perspective build on and complement existing work to achieve food security, justice, sovereignty, and equity?

2. Key Themes

Key themes that emerged through our conversation with Wallace converge around the following four areas: systems thinking, consciousness raising, practical and conceptual barriers, and change making. In the following sections, we examine some of the more prominent aspects of each of these key themes.

A word cloud made out of the text of this article in the form of a bus. Emphasizes the need for systems thinking about food ethics.

2.1. Systems Thinking

Wallace emphasized the need to consider food waste from both an individual and a systems perspective. For Wallace, such a shift in understanding not only relates to educating community members about the importance of food waste recycling and composting but also to how the process of cultural formation and change “happens in public systems and community based systems.” She states,

for me this isn’t just about compost, it started out as a project about compost because I am engaged with people in the food systems work and it came up as one of the needs, we need a system and we need it to be bigger because our farms are growing …. But as I got into it, it evolved beyond compost … this is all about how we change our thinking about the whole food system and how we close the food system loop, how we keep things working for us.

Such systems-oriented thinking, nonetheless, does not mean that everyone is involved for the same reasons and desired outcomes; rather, the intersectional character of Wallace’s work points to the complexity of working with multiple stakeholders who represent a diversity and plurality of needs and desires when it comes to composting food waste at the community scale.

2.2. Consciousness Raising

Wallace suggests that educating community members about the value of community-based composting is central to the task of adopting a more systems-oriented approach. This includes, but goes beyond, composting’s ecological and economic benefits. According to Wallace,

it is about stewardship and resourcefulness. It’s about building resiliency … it’s important not just because we want to improve the quality of the soil and we want to improve the quality of the food that is grown in the soil, it is important because we are stewards of the environment and stewards of the development of a sustainable food system that feeds all of us.

Education around the broader value of composting necessitates reaching the “everyday” person. Otherwise, Wallace suggest, “You might hold a workshop on composting. It typically is being held in environments where you are preaching to the choir … it is generally not reaching the everyday person.” To do this requires elevating the moral orientation of composting work, she suggests, so that people will come to understand the issue as “important to me as a human being and as a person.” It is the cultivation of desire that stems from being touched first as a person to ask: “How can I be a contributor? How can I make a difference as one?” Wallace already sees this ethical orientation toward food systems work in herself and her peers. Those working in the sustainable food systems field believe deeply that food security, food sovereignty, and food justice are important, so much so that “they are connected to it in their souls.” She goes on, “It’s important that we cultivate our own food. It is important that we have healthy food. People are dying. I mean we’re dying. And so we don’t just come at it from a business perspective, we are coming at it from a social responsibility, a social stewardship, love and care perspective.” Dominant perspectives on food systems work, Wallace asserts, need to be taken to “another level that becomes part of our soul and our DNA. … We have to change our thinking,” she adds, “our thinking is going to change our hearts…our hearts are going to change our actions.”

2.3. Barriers

The work that needs to be done is difficult, Wallace suggests, as numerous barriers prevent community members and public officials from recognizing the value of food waste and compost. For instance, ongoing challenges emerge when introducing farming and food-oriented activities in an urban context such as Detroit. This work, Wallace emphasizes, echoing “Constructing a New Food Ethics: Waste and Discourses of Difference,” has to be done “appropriately inside an urban context … people need to know that it is going to be practiced in a way that doesn’t create conflicts or nuisances for them as city dwellers.” In particular, perceptions that compost smells, attracts vermin, and is aesthetically displeasing must be addressed. Economic costs involved with instituting community-scale composting operations are also a significant barrier, Wallace notes. Using recycling as an example, she explains, “Some of the barriers are cost. Who’s going to pay for the hauling and the sorting? What do the community and institutional waste generators pay for? What do producers who use the waste to make compost pay for? Is it possible to create a cost sharing model that is acceptable to all parties?” Ultimately, Wallace is “attempting to hold the space for the development of this community-scale ecosystem and infrastructure. And at the same, trying to hold the space for the cultural change. There are multiple barriers in the process of building both the culture and the ecosystem.”

2.4. Change Making

The issue of change making on both individual and collective levels runs throughout the interview. Central to Wallace’s theory of change is the notion of agency in terms of postulating which actors in her particular context have the capacity to instigate consciousness and cultural change. Wallace pragmatically begins with what she calls “the coalition of the willing,” these are

the people who are not going to fight you about doing it, start with them, and tell their stories. Let them be the ones to lead the way, to become the stewards and contagions of change. We can also select logical places, like community farmers’ markets, to engage others. To me they are great places to build the culture from because people are already coming to those markets because they want fresh food. So we start talking to them there about collecting their food waste and bringing it there. … You can also talk to the market vendors … what they don’t sell, what they don’t want back, will you put into the community compost system? We have conversations in those spaces because there are always conversations and dialogues happening there that people engage in …. I see it as infusing the work into the existing practices and working to create the culture in the rhythms that already exist in the lives of the people who have an affinity for the community food system.

One method of change making that Wallace utilizes is what she calls speaking in “word pictures,” which help people reflect on their own experiences interacting with waste in the food system:

When I started talking about food waste and composting a couple of years ago, people were like, ‘I don’t even know what you’re talking about.’ I wasn’t effectively painting the picture with the words I was using. I’ve changed that. People are also seeing more infographics and videos now food waste, these types of word pictures are also helping. People … don’t see systems unless you make the systems visible.

This strategy is about having conversations about waste “all the way through the food system” to make it visible, beginning with the food producers. “Think before you grow,” Wallace tells farmers before they drop seeds in the ground, “Who’s going to eat that food? … Because … it’s potential food waste from the start if you drop seeds and you haven’t already thought about who’s going to eat the food.” Ultimately, for Wallace, the changes that need to occur for city-wide community scale composting to become a reality could result from effectively introducing the term food ethics and designing ethics-based conversations:

People can get caught up and polarized by the terms we use—food justice, food security, food sovereignty, equity … to me food ethics is something that everybody can relate to, as it embodies all of these concepts. When you say the word ethics people generally understand you are talking about right and wrong. You’re talking about what we believe and how those beliefs drive our decision making and actions as people. So the burning question is how we cultivate a change in how we think, talk and act regarding food waste and composting, with an ethics lens that takes all of these things into consideration.

We concur with Wallace. A lasting solution to the issue of food waste requires a deeper cultural rethinking of the nature of waste. We humbly issue a clarion call for a “new ethics of food” and a new interpretation of food waste.


This work was supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Federal Appropriations under Project PEN04437 and accession number 1012188.

APPENDIX A - Key concepts and metaphors from interview with Renee Wallace

1) Community and Social Structure

A word cloud in the shape of a person depositing waste in a receptacle. The cloud emphasizes key terms from the team's interview with Renee Wallace on the theme of "community and social structure."

Terms: Expansion vs. insularity; Engagement; Diversity; Voice; Systems vs. individuals; System approach exposes ideas to more people; Multi-stakeholder representation; “good neighbors”; “intentional and deliberate”; Connection; Public listening sessions; Diverse needs and desires; “participatory and inclusive”; We can be the people who will accelerate the improvement of soils in Detroit; Cultivate culture in Farmers’ Markets (“third places”)

2) Consciousness

A word cloud in the shape of brain. The cloud emphasizes key terms from the team's interview with Renee Wallace on the theme of "consciousness."

Terms: Attention; Affinity; Shared knowledge; “check out” (just eat junk food); Acceptance; Understanding the value; Reaching the “everyday” person; Agency; “tell stories”; Rhythms; Habit; Mimicry; “people think it goes away … but where is away?”; “think before you grow it”; Must manage the business of composting; Use the structure of the business to be more efficient and effective; Business of composing doesn’t change (diminish) your why

3) Spirituality

A word cloud in a spiral pattern colored like a rainbow. The cloud emphasizes key terms from the team's interview with Renee Wallace on the theme of "spirituality."

Terms: Soul; DNA; Contagion; Evangelist; Stewardship; Cultivation of desire; My gut and my heart; Death; Love and Care; “my energy”; Preaching to the choir

4) Barriers

A word cloud in the shape of a stop sign. The cloud emphasizes key terms from the team's interview with Renee Wallace on the theme of "barriers."

Terms: Life-load (capacity) (unattentive) (indifferent); Who pays? Pays for what?; Culture; Scale; Conflicts; Nuisance; Time; Polarized; Languages; Smell; Vermin; Noise and traffic; Look (aesthetics); Siting

5) Change

A word cloud in the shape of blowing breeze. The cloud emphasizes key terms from the team's interview with Renee Wallace on the theme of "change."

Terms: Policy drives change; Ordinance modifications; Standards and codes; Thinking (mindset); Shifting; Consciousness; Culture; Practices, modeling practices in real time; Infusion; Contagion; Ambassadors; Connection; Ignite your desire; Cultivate; Empower—“we can be doing this for ourselves”; Build relationships; “hold the space”; “start from the inside out”; “rippling outward”; “coalition of the willing”; “fight”; Partnership; “You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar”; Visualize agency, “draw better pictures”; “not everybody can afford to get into the energy production. That’s big scale high cost. You know, we can’t do that right now but what we can do is compost”; Opportunity; Leadership; Narrative; Create and share new knowledge; Share and network resources; Stewardship; Resourcefulness; Systems—there’s more to it; Leverage points to get past barriers; Heart-driven; Soul-connected; Social responsibility, social stewardship; Love and care; Children/youth change influencer; Common language; Ethics is the big umbrella, “taking food justice, food security, food sovereignty, equity to another level”; Ethics is non-polarizing; Ethics speaks to the humanity in us; Ethics is about everybody

APPENDIX B – Transcript of an Interview on Community-Based Food Waste Composting with Renee Wallace, Executive Director, FoodPLUS Detroit.

A word cloud in the shape of a brain. The cloud is made up of the complete text of the team's interview with Renee Wallace.

Stephen Rachman: It would be great to get some background. I think the idea that you are coming from business to community in this kind of project is important.

Renee Wallace: It has been real interesting because I am always wearing both hats. Most of my work is inside of organizations, helping them do strategic initiatives and projects. So a lot of it is process improvement, change management, implementing initiatives that are going to have a particular kind of impact on the organization. And it’s only been the last five, well almost six years now, that I have done work that is more community oriented. Work in community has really expanded so many things. When I was doing work just in business, it was very insular, it was—you’re doing this work, it’s inside this organization—and most of what happens is all about the stakeholders in that organization and some outside, but doing work in food systems has exposed me to so much more. It’s opened me up to the engagement of a variety of different kinds of people in work. I really had no sensitivity to the importance of policy at this level until I started doing food systems work. Now I understand. So, while I was a process-oriented person and I understood the need to have systems and processes, I didn’t really see a lot of impact around policy kinds of things because that work was internal to organizations and policy doesn’t drive in the same way internally, but I really get that in this work.

The other thing that stands out for me is how culture forms and change happens in public and community-based systems. It is so much more complex and complicated at times than when you are inside an organization. But I also see why it is so important to be involved in these kinds of things. I’m introverted, actually I am a functional extrovert. I come out because I love working and I love helping people, but you see this space behind me? This is my lab. It’s like there are two favorite spaces in my life, the room and the lab. The room is where I spend my time in prayer, let me talk to the God about what is going on, let me get some instructions. And then I fast forward and I am running to the lab. And then I do what I do in the lab and then I go out to help people because that is what I really love doing. I love helping other people do what they do. This community work has opened me up in so many ways. In our whirlwind life, you’re just doing what you’re doing, you don’t even pay attention to a lot of the stuff that’s passing by you, and not recognizing that your voice is so important.

So, for me this isn’t just about compost. It started out as a project about compost because I am engaged with people in the food systems work and it came up as one of the needs: we need a system and we need it to be bigger because our farms are growing. But as I got into it, it evolved beyond compost, this all about our thinking. It’s our thinking about the whole food system, how we close that loop and keep things working for us and how we change our thinking. Now I go into places and say: “Ok, I only want you to put this much water in my glass because I know I am not going to drink it.” And when I leave, I say, “I want you to pour it in the cup, not bring me a whole other fresh cup when I leave.” Also, when I leave I want my food. I have these little bags that I am now creating a system that says that this is my bag not the dog’s bag so that you take your own bag with you when you go out. So, you are intentional about taking the food home and not having people throw it away. So, this stuff has shifted so much and I’m hoping as we do this work, we will be able to shift the consciousness and the culture and the practices of people who are already predisposed to an affinity in the food system and make us contagions and evangelists to affect those around us and keep that circle rippling outward.

Robert (Rob) Magneson Chiles: Why compost in particular, Renee? What in your experience or social connections caused you to gravitate toward compost, what resonated for you, or made it special?

Renee: When we first started FoodPLUS Detroit we built a portfolio of projects. Our intention was to do things that we knew fit with the way we wanted to work—multi-stakeholder engagement, collaborative projects with shared knowledge, new knowledge creation and sharing, and resource networking. In the food system there are a lot of people growing food. We passed an urban agriculture ordinance in 2013 defining land use for cultivation purposes. But when we look at the system, there are still gaps. People are increasing the size of their farms and they’re shipping compost in. We had a few people who were interested in scaling up their compost operations because they were already at a farm scale and they were spending a lot of money and time to bring that resource in. They had an absolute interest in being a part of building that ecosystem, letting their sites be part of a network of compost operations, and being able to supply their peers and others in the system. So, it was a strategic place that we could practice the way that we envision doing projects. At FoodPLUS, our work is facilitating and accelerating food systems projects. We try to pick things where we can stay engaged by wrapping the way we work around the systems aspects, as well as the technical aspects of what we’re trying to build. Plus, it is an approach that is a natural fit for me being a process queen and change person, as well as being an entrepreneur who understands that you have to build a system. So, there’s more to it than just having a compost operation. You need haulers, you need people do the sorting. We pick projects that address gaps. Food waste and compost was something that I knew we could help facilitate.

Rob: Is there something about food waste and compost in particular that has a cultural significance beyond that of using materials more efficiently, and if there is can you talk about that?

Renee: Well, to me it is about stewardship and resourcefulness. It’s about building resiliency. For those of us who are working in the food system, that’s where I start, we become the contagions and the evangelists. We are holding this space because we believe that a sustainable food system is important. And we believe that food security, food justice and food sovereignty are important. To me, to take our work to another level where how we address food waste becomes part of our soul and our DNA. The opportunity is to look at the ethical aspects of it: Why is this really important? It’s important not just because we want to improve the quality of the soil and we want to improve the quality of the food that is grown in the soil. It’s important because we are stewards over the development of a sustainable food system that feeds all of us. And in order to get there, we have to change our thinking, our thinking is going to change our hearts. Our hearts are going to change our actions.

Because I do change management, I understand that there has to be a cultivation of desire. In order for people to make a change, there has to be some seeded desire in them and so how do we get to that? And that is what I am trying to get to with this effort. That’s where I first started these conversations with Paul Thompson about food ethics. Food ethics creates a broader umbrella under which food justice, security, sovereignty, equity, all those things fit, but ethics speaks to me in my humanity. I don’t know a whole lot about ethics. This is my intuitive perception of it. This is my gut and my heart speaking about what I think it can do. How can I, as a steward and a person, who wants to help in the development of a sustainable food system, get to our hearts and our minds to create the culture and the practice changes. I am willing to help facilitate the challenging conversations, to try and help shift, and find where the levers are that help people get past the barriers. This takes more time to do and the numbers don’t look right. How am I going to get past those barriers to really help us do this? Those barriers exist at all scales around composting, with people in the system and people outside of it. And there are those who are doing industrial scale composting and aren’t always as concerned with food waste. That is not their issue. I am focusing there because I want to see us do this work from the inside out.

Rob: I am hearing you use terms like contagion, evangelism, and soul and heart. Can you say a little more about what these terms mean to you when you talk about compost? How is that different from what it means to others you interact with?

Renee: Most the people I hang out with in food system work are doing it out of their hearts. They really believe that this is very important work to do. They are connected to it in their souls. Food is important to us. It’s important that we cultivate our own food. It is important that we have healthy food. People are dying, I mean we’re dying. We don’t come to this work from a business perspective only. We are coming to it from a social responsibility, a social stewardship, a love and care perspective. Now we’re starting to see a shift. People doing community food systems work understand that they still need to manage the business of what they’re doing. While I am growing food, I still need to manage the business of growing food. You can use the structure of the business to be more efficient and effective, but it doesn’t change your heart, it doesn’t change why you’re doing it.

Now with compost and compost operations, it will give the people who are committed to work the ability to meet their own needs and meet the needs of others, and it can create a revenue stream that increases their sustainability. And we do the work to build the economy of our own food system. So, the need is there, and as we increase the size of farms, we are going to need more compost. But we are bringing compost in because we don’t have the capacity to produce enough. We could be doing it for ourselves, and we could be the people who will accelerate the improvement of soils in Detroit because we’re producing compost right here and it’s accessible. And it can be accessible to more people and the improvement of the soils is going to improve the quality of our food. We improve the quality of the food; we improve the quality of life of the people who are committed to eating that food.

Rob: So, you’re looking at food as something that’s sacred and life providing and critically important, and there are some people who work in food that just see it as a business and just something that you sell. You see compost as something that can be a material practical bridge between these two realms—is that true?

Renee: I don’t know if it is so much as a bridge, it is that producing high quality food requires you to do certain things. Getting food waste back into our system allows us to stay focused on producing good food that impacts the quality of life. For example, I watch what happens to me based on the food that I eat. I know how to check out. If I want to check out, I would eat Haagen-Dazs, Snickers, and Mountain Dew. I’m out, because I’m fuzzy and I’m falling through the floor. I have just checked out. There are people whose diets look a lot like that on a regular basis. So, what is the quality of their life?

However, when I am eating clean fresh foods that are prepared well and I am eating that on a regular basis, my energy is bouncing off the walls. I have more energy than people who are drinking caffeine all day, that is natural clean energy. The quality of my life experience is so much better when I am in that place. Think about the kids that are walking to school who are eating hot Cheetos and drinking pop on the way, or the high schoolers who cut out for lunch because they don’t want to eat what’s in the cafeteria, we expect them to pay attention in class?

Rob: Sounds like the people that you work with in the community make the connection between childhood nutrition, fast food, and quality of life? What about when you talk with them about compost? Will they make a similar connection about its impact on our quality of life?

Renee: I think they will. There are people doing family, school, and community gardens—typically under an acre—in their backyards and on side lots. Many of them have small compost systems or participate in picking up compost from community distribution sites. People who are farming larger than an acre need more compost, but they don’t have the capacity to produce it themselves. The goal of FoodPLUS Detroit’s project is to work primarily with people who are at the farm scale.

Stephen: Are they already working actively on these issues?

Renee: Yes, and they get this, this is not something that I have to convince them is important to do. The question is how do we get our community on board with this? We have to pass or modify the ordinances and the conditions that allow us to do commercial community scale composting. Part of this is also about being good neighbors. We want to do composting inside the boundaries of the city. And we want to do it in a way that demonstrates that we are being intentional and deliberate by incorporating good management practices in how we establish compost operations. And that’s important not only for the product, but it’s important for the people who live nearby because of the smell, the look, the traffic flow in and out. Those are all things that are going to impact the people nearby. We have to create a community that is accepting of having compost operations and understands why we need to do this.

It is the same kind of conversation we’re having around livestock; people want to raise livestock as an extension of food security. “I am growing vegetables and I want eggs and meat. I want these things because it is a part of feeding ourselves.” But we need to do it appropriately inside an urban context because the residence is the principle reason why people want to live in the city. Adding farming and farming-oriented things must fit well within the context of a city. We need to approach this from two standpoints. One, people need to understand why this is important to me as a human being and as a person. And then two, people need to know that it is going to be practiced in a way that doesn’t create conflicts or nuisances for them as a city dweller. I’m looking at this and thinking about how ethics, an ethics perspective, an ethics lens, can help in those two conversations. Particularly with all the environmental kinds of things that we’re dealing with, how can we use an ethics perspective to help people understand the policies governing composting and understand the business practices required to do it in the communities where we live.

Tiffany Tsantsoulas: Okay, I have a lot of questions I want to ask but specifically around consciousness raising. It’s really catching my ear because the kind of work that I do specifically in feminist philosophy there is a big moment of consciousness raising that happened maybe twenty years ago, or something like that. It was sort of the buzz word at that time, and I think for similar reasons. So, if I think about the literature, the idea is we were saying changing peoples, or cultivating a desire for something that maybe isn’t naturally there, and waking them up to ways in which different habits, different thinking, different practices are going to benefit their quality of life. And so what I am wondering is, when you speak about consciousness raising, practically speaking, what kinds of methods are you envisioning? What have you tried? What’s working? What’s not working? And what are the barriers there?

Renee: So, some of the things that are happening are compost workshops. And again, most of those talks aren’t getting at what I think we really need to be doing, but it exposes people to the practice and just an understanding of what composting is. But to me it doesn’t get at the kinds of things that affect change at an individual level.

Rob: So, can you explain some more about what is being done?

Renee: Workshops. You might hold a workshop on composting. It typically is being held in environments where you are preaching to the choir mostly. Mostly you are preaching to the choir because most of those workshops are held and inviting people that are already into gardening or who tend to come to food system related events because they have an affinity, or they are working in it or they are supporters of. But it is not reaching the everyday person. So, I look at the work that is being done around curbside recycling. We just went citywide on curbside recycling here. It is less than 13%, it may be increasing now but that’s not going over well, why? There are barriers financially, first of all. I mean, there’s a charge for it. And you know Detroit has a lot of people that are challenged, “I’m not gonna spend money for that or I’m gonna spend money to do something else I really need to do or something I want to do.” And then, how are you going to help facilitate the change, so I am looking at things that are already being tried and not working around the whole notion of recycling and around repurposing things in our systems and I want to avoid those traps and having some knowledge and experience in change management I know you have to cultivate change in a different way.

It can’t just be information; it can’t just be “we need everybody to do this.” I’m putting this big umbrella out, I need to be able to connect something that is going to ignite your desire to do this. So, presently most of the work around this is happening through general workshops and talks. I’ve done some demonstrations with the Detroit Food Council as a good food summit every year, and I have set up operations there and manned a station and helped people sort their food waste instead of dropping it in the black can. We had a green can and a blue can and signs, you know, trying to cultivate. I have done that in open settings, like the African American World Festival, where a lot of people come through there and I have not perfected that yet. And just looking at where it is now, we can do this.

The hardest part that I am trying to get at through this process is understanding the context. So part of what I am trying to get out of this is to understand how, in talking about it from an ethics perspective, how can I use that to help me define the methods to go forward because it will be a way of talking about it, it will be a way of how I infuse this into conversations, into experiences. How do I now show up with a compost operation in tact at meetings, portable, and I can talk about it in ways that start to cultivate that change where I touch you as a person first, then you start to bring it into your practices. You see what I’m saying? I want to get to that part of it and gaining some understanding what you all know about ethics and how that cultivates change. How does that cultivate mindset change? How does that cultivate culture change? That’s what I don’t know and that’s what drew me to this, being a part of this work.

Rob: So, you are looking for kind of like a tool kit and some vocabulary and some best practices that we might be able to impart? Is that…

Renee: And then we are going to practice it in the project. Because the project that’s a part of this, this is exactly what it is. And it gives us the opportunity to apply this. You know, in the project.

Tiffany: That’s really helpful. What you need and what you are trying to do is a very difficult thing, and I think something that in different areas many, many people are sharing that struggle. So, okay, I guess I have one more question around this. This is just helping to me to think about the kind of ethically duty you want to cultivate here, so when you say something like “this cultivation of desire” or “how were going to get passed barriers,” I am hearing, at least in ethics language, I am hearing something like “how do we cultivate a compulsion or a duty, I am now feeling compelled to do something from something higher than practicality.”

Renee: Yeah, I like compulsion. I like that. And I would say as opposed to duty, I would say stewardship. You know, because duty implies obligation. It is an obligation, duty kind of sounds like, you know what I’m saying, it’s stewardship, it’s a part of how, as a human being on the planet, when we look at big stuff, we think about what can I do, but you can be a steward as one. And it’s that combination that creates change. How can I be a contributor? How can I make a difference as one?

Tiffany: Okay, so that’s good. So, you’re really touching on another important ethical concept. Maybe the most important one, right, which is agency.

Renee: Yes, agency.

Tiffany: So, in what way can you through this project empower people to actually recognize that they have agency in the food system? And then on top of that, that agency means that they can do something like take on a stewardship role over the food system and maybe those are two separate steps. So, I would like it if you could just give some more experience in detail on the kinds of conceptual or even ethical barriers you see coming up in the communities you are working in. What are the common things you’re hearing, just so that we can craft what kind of response might work?

Renee: So, some of the barriers are cost. So presently, at an individual level, to even participate in a city-wide recycling, it had a cost barrier initially. You had to pay the twenty-five dollars to get the container, so a lot of people didn’t do that. In the business side of it, there are costs because who’s going to pay for the hauling, the collection and the hauling. And so, do the generators pay for it? Do the producers pay for it? Is there a shared model? So, figuring out how to do that and how to get people beyond the fact that initially it costs you to do this. It’s like, you know, if you are driven by the bottom line and it can’t cost you anything, then you are going to be stopped in your tracks. So how do we get passed that barrier from the business side of it, so people actually can open up and do that? How do we also open up money and funding for this to be the small businesses to be developed in the entrepreneurial level? So, you know, I can start the hauling business. Whether I’m using a truck or using bikes. I can create the sorting center, so organizations like Forgotten Harvest, who will give you the inputs but sometimes they come packaged on huge pallets, I don’t necessarily want that at the farm. You know, that sucks out of my labor and resources at the farm. But where can I put a sorting, where can I put an operation to take all that packaging off and who’s going to pay? How does that get looped into the system? It will generate jobs, but how do I really deal with that ecosystem, you know, those are all cost kind of barriers.

Other things are being able to take the time to build the relationships with the generators of food waste. So most of the people that are interested in doing this, from a compost reduction standpoint, are operating farms and they’re already resourced and trained. So, trying to have the time to build the relationships with the generators of food waste on a scale that we need to be talking to, that’s a barrier. The process of building those clients, those customers, who’s doing that? So, it is kind of like building the whole chain and keeping that going. So, with FoodPLUS, I’m attempting to hold the space for the development of this ecosystem and the infrastructure. And at the same time, trying to hold the space for the cultural change. So, there are barriers throughout the building of the ecosystem, I guess that’s the simplest way for me to say that. There are multiple barriers in the building of the ecosystem itself.

Tiffany: What about cultural change, what are some of the cultural barriers that you see?

Renee: I see some of those being people’s mindset about how they handle waste. We throw everything in the black can. Are we slowing down and stopping to think I need to sort this out and that I need to take it somewhere? Are we willing to perhaps pay a little more so the restaurants and the places we eat can afford to take this on? The change is shifting our mindsets of how we even think about food and when does it become waste. That’s why I really love the Greimas square—food, not food, waste, not waste framing—because we have different perspectives of what’s food and not food, and when it becomes waste. I don’t even want to put compostable food waste in the black can cause it’s not waste. If it’s compostable, it’s not waste. If it’s not compostable, and the only alternative is to throw it out and it lands in the incinerator or the landfill, then that’s waste. The cultural change is getting our minds around a common meaning and understanding of what’s food, not food, waste, not waste. Those meanings and understandings can help us decide whether we’re willing to put in the effort. Am I actually going to spend that kind of time to do that? I believe the change needs to start from the inside out. If people already have an affinity around the food system work, let’s get them doing it, and let’s tell their stories. My friends are great examples. They swear that they know more about food than they ever wanted to know. I keep telling them that you don’t know enough, and I am going to keep talking to you and as I talk to them it changes their practice. One of my closest friends discovered that she had cancer and I told her that her new favorite food color is green. Green! I gave her a juicer, she began juicing. This changed her whole family culture. Her three sons and her husband eat and drink green. No more cancer.

We can do this. I think we start with the people who have the strongest affinity for it, and they help create the culture. The initial barrier of the extra time it takes disappears as consciousness changes and how you handle food waste becomes part of your practices, part of your rhythm, it’s just part of what you do. And how do we cultivate that? I always talk about starting with coalition of the willing—the people who are not going to fight you about doing it—start with them. Tell their stories, let them be the ones. And then create change in logical places like community farmers’ markets. These are great places to build the culture because people are already coming to those markets because they want fresh food. And we talk about food waste and compost in those spaces because they are always having conversations and dialogues around the community-based farmer’s markets. We begin with the people who are holding that space, when they are holding events, we have the ability to collect food waste. We infuse this work it into their practices and create the culture in the rhythms that already exist.

Rob: Is that what you mean by contagion? You start with people who have an affinity for the work and then they become the ambassadors?

Renee: Yes, and through practice people start doing stuff because they see you doing it. It’s like, “Oh, wait wait, help me figure out how to sort this.” People still stop me and say I remember when I met you years ago, you used to carry your food everywhere you went. They remember that. And when we’re in meetings and there are no snacks, and although they would talk about what I am eating, it’s like what’s that green stuff, you’ve got twigs and bark and grass in that bag over there? And I’m like yes and it’s tasty and you’re hungry, would you like some? And they start tasting stuff that they wouldn’t normally taste because you’re hungry and I’m the only one in the room with food.

Rob: You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

Renee: Catch them! There you go. I think this kind of culture change can happen in the same way. One thing I’ve observed is that people can get caught up in the languages we use—food justice, food security, food sovereignty, equity. When I first started talking to Paul Thompson about ethics, it resonated with me because I thought ethics is something that everybody can relate to. I’ve seen people get polarized in conversations. When you say ethics, ethics means everybody. Period. It’s right and wrong. It’s what we do. It’s what drives our decision making as people. And so how do we cultivate this change with an ethics lens that takes all of these things into consideration. How do we do that around food waste and composting?

Tiffany: Great.

Stephen: You talked about how there are people in the system who have an economic motive, or they need a resource like compost to grow their farm or their business. Does it break down along either generational or gender lines?

Renee: From a generational standpoint younger people are easier to convince to change because they’re still forming habits. They are contagions. You teach them something and they go home and say, “Why are you throwing that away? Don’t you understand that we really should be doing it like this?” I taught my grandson one day about water. He was always running the water when he was brushing his teeth, running the water when he washed his hands. And I said, “No Will, we’re wasting water.” So, I taught him to wet the toothbrush, turn the water off, brush your teeth, turn it back on to rinse his toothbrush when he was finished. Run the water, wet your hands, turn it off, wash your hands, turn it back on. Save water. Then he tells me, “You know my mom she wastes a lot of water.” I said, “Don’t go home and say that. What I want you to do is go home and show her how you’re doing it and help change her practices.” Generationally, I think we can help influence younger people, easier faster. And they can demonstrate and carry things into their practice, into their homes, their schools and other places. I haven’t really observed any gender distinctions. Good question.

Stephen: Your idea or theme is that you want people to see that ethics underlie all of our conduct and you want them to be stewards—to care about these matters. But there is tension between seeing what’s in front of you and the problem with systems which are not visible. How do you get people to see systems?

Renee: Pictures. Show it. I paint word pictures sometimes. I’m working to improve my facilitative graphic and recording skills so I can draw better pictures and be able to engage people in conversations both with word pictures and drawings, so that they can see in their own experience what’s happening. Some of this stuff might be hitting them in their periphery, because in the last year and a half the conversation about food waste has accelerated and people are hearing about it more. When I started talking about it a couple years ago, people were like “I don’t know even know what you’re talking about.” But they are seeing it more now, so pictures help. You’re right, people don’t see systems unless you make the systems visible. I’m creating a picture of the food system and showing how waste falls out of it all along the way: waste falls out at land, waste falls out when you start to produce, waste falls out when you’re harvesting, waste falls out when you’re processing in the kitchen, waste falls out when you’re transporting, waste falls out all along the way. What I want to do is to show that visual piece and show the waste falling out, then ask them, “Where does it go?” One of the things that I ask is, “Where is away?” Because people think it goes away right? It goes in a can and it goes away. But where is away? And what happens with it when it goes away? I’m trying to connect with them with their natural rhythm so that know where away is when they drop things in a black, green, or blue can.

Stephen: And do you find that critics of food waste think of composting as a last resort aspect because there is so much energy taken to produce food and to package it, so it’s always less wasteful in a certain sense to use that food after its been produced rather than to compost? Do you ever get into which food waste measures or anti-food waste measures are less wasteful or more wasteful?

Renee: Yes, I don’t necessarily agree that energy has higher value than compost. I would see them on the same level, it’s not a this or that, it’s this and that. Some waste can be used to produce energy, and some can go back into the food system. We still need our soil quality to be enriched, enhanced, and maintained as a resource to produce food. We shouldn’t have to make a choice between energy and soil quality. It can be this and that. One is not more important than the other. We need both. I sit at tables with people who do food rescue, and I when I talk about food waste and composting, I use the term “compostable food waste.” If food is still edible, get it to the people who can eat it, and I’m an advocate for that, and I say that. But if you can’t get it to the people who can eat it in time, then divert it, it’s compostable food waste. Do not put it in the black can if it’s compostable. I approach that conversation from a holistic standpoint. I have a graphic that I created, on it is the statement, “Think before you grow it.” Before you drop a seed in the ground, think, “Who’s going to eat that food?” Have you thought about it? It is potentially food waste when you drop the seed if you haven’t already thought about who’s going eat the food. As a systems and process thinking person, I hold that conversation all the way through the food system. We need to make sure that if it could have been composted, it’s composted. Not everybody can afford to get into energy production. That’s big scale, high cost. Perhaps we can’t do that right now but what we can do is compost.

Stephen: I want to go back to a point that you had brought up earlier about ordinances. How do you go beyond the coalition of the willing who want to get involved in composting to engage policy makers?

Renee: One of my colleagues, Kathryn Lynch Underwood, is a city planner. She knows more about urban agriculture in Detroit than anyone else. If she were not doing food systems work, we wouldn’t be nearly as effective in moving ordinances forward. For example, I’ve been involved with her on developing an urban livestock ordinance. The kinds of things that we have to consider regarding livestock are the exact same kind of things we have to consider for composting. We have to look at practices to address smell, vermin, noise, and traffic. We need standards and codes for sites. What do the sites need to look like? What are the conditions? It’s the same exact process. Kathryn formed work groups of stakeholders who came to the table to talk. We did research. Kathryn served was on the State of Michigan’s livestock work group. That was a work group of animal keepers and one of city staff. We designed and hosted public listening sessions to talk with people and get their inputs, answer their questions, all prior to the formal public hearing. We know how to do this. I have experience engaging policymakers.

Stephen: And you don’t encounter resistance?

Renee: Yeah, you do because there are always going to be people that say, “I don’t care what you say, I don’t want any of this in a city.” The reality is that the city is a place with people with diverse needs and desires. We use the process to give everybody space for their voice and to determine what would be the ideal conditions under which the city would allow something to happen. Or if you can’t reach agreement and the opposition is too high, not to allow it. We follow that process, and we’re very good at it, and we do it in a very participatory inclusive way. The composting work isn’t any different in that regard. However, composting may not garner as much public attention or engagement. We’ll go through the process, we might not even have to go through any kind of hearings, it may just be some tweaks to the existing standards and codes that are on the books. But we will be conscious about doing engagement with community at the potential sites and educating people about it. We will still do the things we know that help get community acceptance and support.

Rob: I am seeing the types of barriers that you are describing. One of things that the paper does is that it historicizes these barriers and says, “Okay, you’re talking about ordinances that go back over one hundred years to the start of hygienic movements that came into the city. There are race and class dimensions of those ordinances and cultural discomfort that people had around what cleanliness meant, for example what clean people did, what they looked like, how they acted. When you are talking about compost it’s connected to all these historical cultural forces.” And when you’re talking about wanting vocabularies and tools to expand consciousness, I think it might help to include this historical perspective when you’re communicating with people. If people say, “It smells bad,” you can say “Well a hundred years ago it was just a part of living in the city.” The paper might be used as an on ramp to explain the issues we are dealing with now and where that came from.

Renee: And show how the thinking about these things has evolved over time and we’re now in a particular period where we’re defining what it means. Now, we’re getting to redefine it as we’re redefining what our urban experience is in Detroit.

Rob: Right, you’re taking back the narrative.

Renee: We’re taking back the narrative and we’re also creating the new narrative.

Rob: Maybe that’s the new ethics of food that we’re talking about.

Renee: Yes, that’s what I want to talk about in Detroit. The narrative globally is that we need to do things differently in our food system due to increasing urbanization and how that impacts resources. This work on food waste and compost fits in that narrative yet Detroit is a little different: we have land, we’re surrounded by the largest body of freshwater in the world, we have a diverse community. How do we frame this work in our set of conditions, at this point in time? How do we innovate? How do we lead the way? I believe we have the opportunity to lead the way through the lens of food ethics.


  1. The interview questions were developed by Chiles, Rachman, and Tsantsoulas in consultation with Wallace. In addition, Wallace took the interview in new directions as the conversation unfolded. The interview was transcribed, and Gretel Van Wieren, another author on this paper and member of the New Ethics of Food project team, analyzed it in terms of keywords and phrases, and has been reproduced in Appendix B. The four themes that emerged were then “checked” with Wallace for resonance with the work of FoodPLUS Detroit.

Public Holistic Responses

No comments available to display.