San Antonio’s Compost Queens Rule at Turning Food Waste Into Earthy Black Gold

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Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Compost from Squeezers Smoothie and Juice Bar is collected by Compost Queens.

At Eco Centro’s Garcia Street Urban Farm on the East Side, Kate Jaceldo dug her hands into a pile of mulch and food scraps. Heat rose from the decomposing mixture, along with a light, earthy smell.

This soon-to-be compost that will nourish the future farm’s depleted soils was created courtesy of the Compost Queens from the food waste flowing out of homes and businesses around San Antonio.

A family business started by Betsy Wunderlick Gruy, 65, and her daughter, Jaceldo, 41, Compost Queens is about finding the best possible use for the scraps of leftover food from homes and restaurants that might otherwise harm the environment.

“Food waste is a major contributor to climate change,” said Jaceldo, explaining how rotting food releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas with 80 times more warming potential than carbon dioxide.

“It’s a large portion of the landfill, but used correctly, it’s actually like gold,” Jaceldo continued. “It’s so valuable.”

The fledgling business began when Gruy saw a PBS documentary about a woman around her age starting a similar enterprise, Jaceldo said. At the time, Jaceldo was a special education teacher turned social worker, but she was beginning to become “super burnt out with what I was doing.” Starting a compost business seemed like a way to make a tangible impact.

“It was sort of an exploding market across the country, but nobody was doing it in San Antonio,” Jaceldo said.

Since then, the company has grown to serve roughly 130 residential clients and 11 businesses, with another handful of business agreements in the works. Their service area includes most of San Antonio, along with Schertz, Cibolo, Universal City, and Converse. That means residents who can’t take advantage of the City of San Antonio’s green bins for food waste collection can dispose of their food waste via the Compost Queens.

Each residential client gets a paint bucket-sized container, with large, plastic barrels for businesses. Clients fill the buckets with food scraps —  both meat and plant-based.

Jaceldo and Gruy make regular rounds, loading barrels of food waste into the back of their white pickup truck. They arrive to pick up the buckets once or twice a month, depending on the payment plan. The business also offers a discounted rate for customers who drop buckets off at Eco Centro at Impact Guild, a coworking space.

Those bucketfuls of food scraps are then incorporated into compost piles at several different farms and community gardens around San Antonio. There, insects and microbes break the waste down into nutrients that provide vital nourishment to the soil. Compost Queens currently centers its composting around Garcia Street Farm, but other sites include Talking Tree Farm in Converse and a network of community gardens around San Antonio.

After six months of membership, Compost Queens brings its clients a couple buckets of finished compost twice a year. Jaceldo said as their operations ramp up, they hope to offer customers compost more frequently.

“It does take a while to make it a finished product,” she said.

For residential clients, the company charges a $15 startup fee and $20 or $25 per month, depending on whether pickups are monthly or every two weeks. The drop-off arrangement is $10 per month. Business contracts are negotiated on a case-by-case basis.

On Friday, Jaceldo and her son Noah Gann, 21, drove the Compost Queens truck to Squeezers Smoothie and Juice Bar on South Alamo Street. They picked up two heavy blue barrels full of a fragrant mix of pineapple rinds, beet bottoms, and orange peels.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

(From left) Noah Gann, 21, and his mother Kate Jaceldo load compost from Squeezers Smoothie and Juice Bar onto the Compost Queens truck.

Only one problem: The electric lift on the back of the truck stopped working. As Gann fiddled with the switch, Jaceldo called her mother to ask her to bring down a pair of pliers to get the switch working again.

“This is why we need a new truck,” Jaceldo said, laughing. Compost Queens is holding a fundraising event on Thursday at Dorcol Distilling as part of their Kickstarter campaign to raise money to buy a new box truck. The larger truck will allow the company to increase its number of barrels from six to about 21 for one trip, Jaceldo said.

“It’s not a high-margin business, which is why we have to do stuff like Kickstarters,” Jaceldo explained.

The business has been expanding in other ways, too. Moving their main composting site to the Garcia Street Farm will give the company more space for more and larger compost piles.

Jaceldo and Meredith Miller, Eco Centro’s director, have some ambitious plans for how to continue growing. They talked about piloting a food waste processing program for on-campus waste at San Antonio College and St. Phillip’s College. Jaceldo also said she’d like to eventually hire more people, including those who typically have a difficult time finding employment.

“That was a big part of wanting to have them here is this person’s brain,” said Miller at Garcia Street Farm on Friday, nodding toward Jaceldo. “But also the idea that we are going to do so much community education and so much workforce training and education and development programs. I knew Compost Queens would be such a great avenue for that.”

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