MJ, The Co-op Composter

November 30, 2018

by Sarah Buckman

This newsletter, we’d like to honor the dedicated work of our dear Co-op owner and longtime Co-op composter, MJ Walker. We are so grateful for all of the efforts she has made for improving the Co-op’s environmental footprint and we wanted to share a little more about why she is so special to the Co-op.

Since 2001 and even in the previous basement days of the Illinois Disciple Foundation, MJ has been coming to the Co-op several times a week to collect our food waste, any culled food from the sales floor, and compost bags from our food prep areas. Over the 18 years, MJ has single handedly reduced our store’s carbon footprint by diverting our food waste from reaching the Clinton Landfill. MJ feeds the Co-op's food waste to her ducks and her neighbor's cattle and converts spoiled food into fertile soil thats perfect for gardening. She uses the fertile soil she creates to growing food to sell in our Produce department, as well as finding time to usher culled yet salvageable, edible foods to soup kitchens and women’s shelters each week. MJ has helped us establish a stable composting program and she even looks to the future, researching grants opportunities that could strengthen the composting program, like her unique design for a wind-powered covert composter using recycled materials.

A couple weeks ago, we took a quick trip to visit her family’s farm, Mulberries Farm, just 20 minutes southeast from the Co-op in Homer, IL. Mulberries Farm is her family’s small diversified farm and also the location for her experimental compost sites. From a distance framed by monoculture corn fields, you can see Mulberries Farm in it’s glory, bordered with tall large trees and full of wildlife habitat. As we tour the farm, seeing all of the garden plots and compost piles, MJ mentions all of the perennial foliage as we walk pass. From apple groves, fruit trees, black raspberry patches, giant paw paw trees, rhubarb gardens, comfrey, and butternut vines growing along the fence, she has really created a supportive environment for the natural world to thrive. She jokes about how many frogs she has on the property, noting “Every year, I get more frogs. This year, I got a tree frog living in the mailbox. I hear the frogs at night and this is a refuge. Because if you look around those cornfields, where could they live? There’s no place for them to survive... Anywhere you make a home for wildlife, I swear to you, they come and they are here. These creatures are desperate for a place to survive.” In addition to making more stable habitat for amphibians to thrive, she also has a symbiotic and positive relationship with a skunk that regularly visits the compost pile and loves eating from the excess.

In addition to being an outstanding environmental steward and wildlife habitat advocate, MJ experiments first hand on how our various compostable packaging breaks down over time. She notes that the paper plates from our salad bar takes just a week to break down versus the corn-based polymer to-go containers that take more than a year to break down and disappear. She’s also cognizant of how small micro-plastics stickered onto our foods can negatively affect the health of animals that consume them and tries to remove all plastics before offering them up. She notes, “Sometimes when food is a little too far gone, I pass it along to the ducks and sometimes I drop compost off at my neighbor’s, who raises cattle, and the cattle really like the fruit. The fruit stickers probably take the most time removing. So usually when I can pass the fruit on, I try to remove the stickers and will be less processing time for the other farmers.”

MJ’s concern for our food system has provided the resources for us to actively help student groups at UIUC, like DIBBS, to offer grocery stores alternative solutions to their food waste problems. We are so lucky to have such a motivated individual within our cooperative realms and we wanted to extend our gratitude today, to MJ, for her dedication over the past 18 years. Here's to further work down the road to implement more composting systems in our area! MJ’s also featured as a Human of the Co-op this week.