The compost run

(First published in the April 4, 2019 issue of City Pages)

Paul Kage is the man behind Wausau Community Gardens. That includes picking up food waste from restaurants to create compost that feeds the gardens’ soil.


Paul Kage, community gardens coordinator for the Bridge Community Clinic, once per week drives to participating restaurants and picks up food waste that will be composted in the gardens. People can rent out plots at three garden sites to grow their own fruits and vegetables.

The trailer is attached to a brownish gray Chevy Volt, a hybrid electric car that gets 40 miles of straight electric power. At the press of a button he can switch to the gasoline engine, but the 40-mile range is enough for this trip through town.

Kage’s mission: Creating compost to enrich the soil of Bridge Clinic’s community garden plots.

Once a week, Kage picks up food scraps and other compostable material from several Wausau businesses. He stops at Downtown Grocery, Red Eye Brewing Co., Patina Coffee House (primarily for the grounds and filters) and North Central Health Care. Bridge Clinic contributes some of its food waste, such as coffee grounds and filters, to the compost as well.

He swaps the empty buckets for full ones, hauling away a few hundred pounds of food scraps each week. He brings it all to the composting site located at one of the three gardens managed by the clinic. There, he mixes the food scraps with yard waste or other carbon sources—typically “browns” such as cardboard or dead leaves—which help break down the food waste, eventually, into soil. These compost piles line the north side of the fence in the community garden across from the Trolley Flats apartment complex just south of Bridge Street.

In keeping with the earth-friendly philosophy of his mission, Kage rides a bicycle pulling a trailer to pick up the weekly haul in warmer months, which usually involves two trips.

Kage is the community garden coordinator for Bridge Community Clinic. He started as an Americorps volunteer working with the gardens, and eventually Bridge decided the role was important enough to create a 32-hour per week position. He also manages the three community gardens under Bridge’s stewardship, and manages a beehive, with volunteer Pat Peckham, located behind the clinic. The bees produce about 60-80 honey bear sized bottles of honey. They’re sold to Bridge employees right now, and help recoup some of the costs of the program.

The publicly available community gardens represent an important program to Bridge Community Clinic. They’re so popular that plots always sell out quickly. Kage says they’re especially popular with residents of the Hmong community, who start contacting him in October to inquire about plots for the next year. They’re so popular in fact that Bridge Clinic is eyeing an expansion so that even more people have a place to grow their own vegetables.

Kage says there are plans to expand the food waste collection as well, with the possibility of residential pick up. A farm in Custer already is doing this in the Stevens Point area.

Good health and fresh vegetables


Kage checks the food waste bins at Downtown Grocery, where the idea started.

So, an inquiring mind might ask, why is a health clinic, primarily aimed at helping low-income people access health and dental care, involved in gardening and compost? There’s a couple of reasons, says Executive Director Jennifer Smith.

For one, it promotes healthy eating, including access to it. Bridge Clinic patients—or anyone for that matter—can access a garden plot on a sliding fee scale. But even families in a high-income bracket have rented plots.

“We’ve had over the years patients who really benefit from a health and wellness standpoint,” Smith says. “Gardening can be very therapeutic.”

It’s a plus for the staff too, Smith says. The clinic maintains a few of its own plots outside its offices on Second Street just north of Bridge Street. Food grown there ends up going to the food pantry at The Neighbors’ Place. Addressing basic needs such as food insecurity (being without access to a sufficient quantity of nutritious food) is a big part of Bridge’s mission, Smith says.

And a big part of Kage’s job is reaching out to communities to explain the benefits of healthy eating and learning to grow one’s own food.

There’s an environmental component as well. According to peer-reviewed online journal Plos One, U.S. per capita food waste has increased by 50% since 1974, and food waste accounts for more than one quarter of all freshwater consumption and 300 million barrels of oil per day.

What’s the difference if the food breaks down in a landfill versus your backyard garden? Isn’t it producing greenhouse gases either way?

Not exactly. Food waste in landfills breaks down differently than it does in composting. Because of the anaerobic quality of landfills (lack of oxygen), more methane than carbon dioxide is produced, according to an environmental consultant firm RRS. Methane in the atmosphere is 25 times stronger at retaining heat than carbon dioxide. With the introduction of oxygen, which is part of the composting process, far less methane is released. In other words, composting can have a huge impact on reducing one’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Second, food waste accounts for 20% of what goes into landfills, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. About half of that comes from individual households, and the other half from businesses.

Poised for expansion with high demand


The composting site at the community garden on Second and Dekalb streets, near Trolley Flats apartments. Food waste is composted here and turns into soil used at the garden.

The idea for the composting run predates Kage’s involvement with Bridge or with Americorps. The idea was started by Ellen Humberston, a Downtown Grocery employee at that time, who convinced owner Kevin Korpela to start saving food scraps.

Kage first became interested in volunteering with the community gardens at the suggestion of Korpela, and eventually that led to an interest in composting. Kage worked for Americorps for two years, working on the community garden program. In 2017, Bridge Clinic officially took over the gardens, and last year Kage officially became a Bridge employee. He manages the three gardens in the Bridge system, which typically see 30 renters (some rent more than one plot):

• Emerging Garden on Second and DeKalb streets (across from Trolley Flats)

• East Towne Community Gardens, on Jefferson Street behind Neighbors’’ Place, a few blocks east of downtown

• Right outside of Bridge Community Clinic itself.

The city has been a great partner in the endeavor, Smith says. The Jefferson and Second street plots are on city land, she says.

That could be growing. Bridge Community Clinic on Tuesday received preliminary approval by the city’s Economic Development Committee to buy property north of the clinic, which would allow for the clinic’s expansion as well as the community garden’s expansion.

The composting program is poised for expansion as well. The four businesses participating right now are a pilot program, and Kage wants to include more organizations when there’s more room for composting. Even with just those four places, Kage picks up about 1,000 pounds per week, which adds up quickly as one might imagine. This month the Marathon County Health Department will start donating its food waste to the program, and it’s conveniently located next to an existing pickup spot, North Central Health Care.

Getting restaurants to participate isn’t easy, and understandably so, Kage says. It’s extra work for kitchen staff. “They’re already going 100 miles per hour,” Kage says. “It’s something else to add on their plate.”

Kage also has his eye on a residential pickup program, similar to what Rising Sand Organics Farm in Custer currently does. The Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm started in 2017 and last June started a residential food scrap pickup program in the Stevens Point area, says owner-member Kelly Adlington. It took off pretty fast. The farm on Thursdays picks up food waste buckets from 57 residents and six businesses, and the material is composted at Whitefeather Organics Farm and the resulting soil nourishes fields at both Whitefeather and Rising Sand.

In addition to the garden expansion, Bridge plans to go gangbusters on programming this year, with workshops addressing everything from seeding and composting to harvesting of vegetables. It also includes Yoga in the Garden, which has proven popular so far, Smith says.

If you’ve seen Kage driving or bicycling around town doing his compost runs, you’d be forgiven for not really knowing what exactly he’s doing. He’s pulling a trailer filled with about 15 white, 5-gallon buckets, the kind bulk food comes in. The buckets are often left outside. If the lids are shut tight, they won’t smell, Kage says, but some people would rather keep them outside just the same.

The fun begins when Kage returns to the garden near Trolley Flats. Kage will save most of the composting tending for later, but processes one bucket to demonstrate: He hauls out a hand wagon from the garden’s main building, spreads a good amount of dead leaves dropped off by the city from collected yard waste, picking out and discarding pine needles that would make the compost soil too acidic. He then dumps on the food scraps, mashing down some of the intact veggies to ensure they will compost better. He then hauls the mix over to the compost pile and dumps it on. The piles are turned over periodically to aerate the mixture and aid in the decomposition. In short order, the pile turns into nutrient-rich soil that will help grow vegetables.

For more information, find the gardens program online at or search for Bridge Clinic Community Gardens on Facebook.

Composting basics

Yes you can, and should, compost at home. It’s really about dedicating an outdoor space, or indoor bucket, to do it. The rich soil you produce is great for vegetable and flower beds, and even for topping off the lawn. Find details at the Marathon County Solid Waste website. The following tips provided by the U.S. EPA:

What to compost

• Fruits and vegetables; eggshells and nutshells

• Coffee grounds and filters, tea bags

• Shredded newspaper, cardboard, paper

• Yard trimmings, leaves, grass clippings

• Sawdust, wood chips

• Cotton and wool rags

• Dryer/ vacuum lint; hair and fur

• Fireplace ashes

What not to compost

• Black walnut tree leaves or twigs— releases substances that might be harmful to plants

• Coal or charcoal ash —might contain substances harmful to plants

• Dairy products and eggs — Create odor problems and attract rodents and flies

• Diseased or insect-ridden plants — Pests might be transferred to other plants

• Fats, grease, lard, or oils; meat/fish scraps — Create odor problems and attract pests

• Pet waste (dog or cat feces)

• Yard waste treated with chemical pesticides — Might kill beneficial composting organisms

How to compost at home

There are many different ways to make a compost pile. Helpful tools include pitchforks, shovels or machetes, and water hoses. Regular mixing or turning of the compost and some water will help maintain the compost.


• Select a dry, shady spot near a water source for your pile or bin.

• Add brown and green materials as collected; make sure larger pieces are chopped/shredded.

• Moisten dry materials as they are added.

• Once your compost pile is established, mix grass clippings and green waste into the pile and bury fruit and vegetable waste under 10 inches of compost material.

• When the material at the bottom is dark and rich in color, your compost is ready to use. This usually takes anywhere between two months to two years.


• Use a special bin or pail. Remember to tend your pile and keep track of what you throw in. A properly managed compost bin will not attract pests or rodents and will not smell bad. Your compost should be ready in two to five weeks.