February 16, 2022 Banana Peels and Eggshells: Landscape Architecture Student Fights Food Insecurity and Protects the Environment

Marilyn Reish holding vegetables

When a Volunteer combines her passion for the environment, knowledge of farming, unique studio project and very good timing, the results are beautifully simple and at the same time, far-reaching. Marilyn Reish is a third-year graduate student in our School of Landscape Architecture, and her studio project now is part of the city of Knoxville’s new composting program.

You could say farming is in Reish’s blood.

Reish and her partner, Chad Hellwinckel, research associate professor in the UT Institute of Agriculture, own a small farm in South Knoxville called City Possum Farm, a lovely place for fresh vegetables and flowers that benefit from the active composting at the farm. Reish grew up in Virginia in a farming family and worked with soil and horticulture on two farms. In Virginia and here in Tennessee, she has operated community-supported agriculture farms delivering vegetables for 12 weeks each year to area members.

“I have been kind of in love with small-scale farming for a long time,” Reish said.

In 2019, Reish began studying landscape architecture, and soon after, all of the pieces for the city’s composting program came together.

In her spring 2021 studio, taught by Adjunct Assistant Professor Scottie McDaniel, Reish was inspired by the theme, Normalizing the Working Landscape. She and fellow students first studied Knoxville’s history related to development, class and race, industry and infrastructure. They then were challenged to design projects that normalized working landscapes. A working landscape provides a connection among economics, sustainability, ecology and people in a responsible way. True to her passions for sustainable farming, for her studio project, Reish designed a working landscape around food waste collection and urban composting that could be implemented in Knoxville.

“During this studio, I was able to think about the city and its people, how to integrate labor into landscapes and the potential for compost in the city,” Reish said.

At the same time, Hellwinckel attended a climate council meeting hosted by city of Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon, where he brought up the topic of community composting. At that meeting, he connected with Chris Battle, owner of BattleField Farm and Gardens, a non-profit urban farm in Knoxville, who also was interested in the topic. Reish got involved, and the three of them applied for and received a Tennessee Dept. of Environment & Conservation grant to build a solar-powered static-aerated composting system for Knoxville.

“I believe that the future must include working landscapes, especially those that create stability in the food system, seek to use our own urban metabolism (in this case rotting food) and address urban planning voids that do not serve the greater good,” Reish said. “Re-thinking our landscapes in this way can help us do the work needed in order to contribute to our collective survival.”

schematic diagram of composting system

Soon, the city of Knoxville was on board, and its Office of Waste and Resources Management, led by Manager Patience Melnik, purchased food-waste collection bins and prepared the collection site, 227 Willow Avenue at the Old City Recycling Center. As of February 1, the food waste collection system, using Reish’s design, was operational for the city.

The process is simple: Anyone, including residents and restaurants, can drop off certain food scraps, which are picked up by the city of Knoxville and taken to the composting site built by Reish and Hellwinckel at BattleField Farm. There, the scraps are composted into rich soil, which is put to use on the farm and made available to other farmers to grow healthy produce, much of which is used to fight food insecurity in Knoxville.

“Food waste in landfills is a large contributor to carbon emissions,” Reish explained. “My spring studio asked us to look critically at how we metabolize all sorts of things in our lives—in my case food waste—and then integrate them into our landscapes. I think this kind of thinking is critical for the future, and it doesn’t have to be at massive scales to make better outcomes, like the compost that is being created at BattleField Farm.”

a wooden composting station and a man

Why are food scraps important in composting? “One needs the right ratio of carbon and nitrogen within a compost pile for microbial decomposition. Food scraps are high in nitrogen, break down easily and are readily available. Scraps that people normally throw away can be turned into soil,” Reish said.

Food waste that is welcome at the composting site includes fruits, vegetables, coffee grounds, paper coffee filters, eggshells and nut shells. Scraps can be dropped off at the Willow Avenue site between 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Read more about the food-waste composting system.