The following story was written by Heinen’s partner Elaine T. Cicora.
Tilth: The name may be a tongue twister, but when it comes to healthy, nutrient-rich soil, this locally made product – seasonally available in the floral departments of select Heinen’s — tells a tale worth sharing.
The end product of an ambitious composting program launched by Cleveland’s worker-owned cooperative, Rust Belt Riders (RBR), in 2014, Tilth Soil represents the final link in an elegant circular system that not only diverts food waste from landfills and contributes to combatting climate change, but helps generate top-quality soil for next season’s crops: the “table-to-farm” link that can, in the words of RBR co-founder Daniel Brown, “design waste out of the system.”
Heinen’s role in supporting this program began several years ago, when Daniel approached the grocer with a proposition to collect and compost their food waste. “As a long-time leader in this field, Heinen’s was already composting with another vendor,” Daniel recalled. “But we share so many values with them, including our focus on regional food systems, that they took a leap of faith and gave us a try at their Chagrin Falls location.”
Once that door was opened, a shared commitment to quality, accountability and sustainability ushered in the partnership. “When their agreement with the other vendor expired, Heinen’s gave us the opportunity to bid on the contract for the remaining stores; we’ve been working with all 19 Ohio locations ever since, and they have been a tremendous partner,” Daniel said.
In fact, since the beginning of 2022, alone, that partnership has allowed Heinen’s to divert more than 3 million pounds of food waste from local landfills and create enough soil to plant more than 24,000 seedlings!
It works like this: Two or three times per week, workers from Rust Belt Riders collect multiple containers of food waste from each Heinen’s location and take them to one in a network of EPA registered composting facilities. Compostable items include fruit and vegetable scraps, cheese and other solid dairy waste, small bones, and even meat trimmings — what Daniel calls “pre-consumer food waste,” mostly generated when food is prepared and packaged for sale. RBR enforces stringent guidelines on what can be accepted for composting, with an aim of ensuring the final product – the compost — is clean, wholesome and of the highest quality.
With careful regulation of temperature, moisture and air flow, the composting process can be accomplished in around 90 days – far faster than a home composter could hope to achieve. Then, the finished compost is screened and amended with a variety of organic nutrients (including peat moss, blood meal, gypsum, rock dust, kelp meal and more) to create one of four Tilth Soil types designed to meet the needs of everyone from houseplant lovers to small regional farm operators.
It’s a remarkably elegant system, says Daniel. “One week after we collect Heinen’s food waste, it is no longer waste at all. The very scraps they generate have been turned into compost, which turns into soil, which then can be used to grow more produce for Heinen’s customers to enjoy.”
At the core of this soil is the company’s biologically active, living compost, which meets and exceeds the standards put forth by the National Organic Program. This exceptional quality has not gone unrecognized. In 2019, for example, a study by the University of Kentucky determined that Tilth’s seed starting mix was among the best performing compost-based potting mixes in the country. And in 2020, the U.S. Composting Council recognized the company as the best small-scale composter in the nation.
The market for Tilth Soil extends from the home hobbyist to the types of small, regional family farms that help grow Heinen’s produce. Seasonally, Heinen’s shoppers will find two Tilth Soil products on the shelves of select stores: Sprout, an organic seed-starting mix, and House, a potting soil for house plants. Both are sold in convenient 5-pound bags, in the floral departments of select Heinen’s locations, listed below.
The soils’ unique qualities make them a great fit for home growers, says Daniel. Nutrient-rich Sprout, for instance, is ideal for getting seeds and transplants off to a healthy start. And House is specifically designed to nurture tender houseplants: Not only is it particularly well-draining, but it is also inoculated with nematodes which parasitize pesky fungus gnats before they can emerge.
All of this is in addition to the soils’ unmistakable environmental value. “When food enters landfills, as it so often does, it emits harmful methane gas, which is a potent accelerator of global climate change,” Daniel pointed out. “By helping to divert food from entering the landfills, Tilth Soil – in partnership with its sister company, Rust Belt Riders, and with the participation of environmentally conscious companies like Heinen’s — is actively combatting climate change.”
Heinen’s “is incredibly thoughtful” in their product sourcing, Daniel adds, not just in terms of quality but also in focusing on the local supply chain. “We are trying to be a conduit for this ‘table to farm’ movement in which Heinen’s has shown so much leadership. What we get to do with Heinen’s is explore how to do this on a regional level.”
“The alignment of Heinen’s beliefs with those represented by Rust Belt Riders and Tilth is obvious,” adds Megan. “Our customers are environmentally conscious, and Heinen’s believes in this product as another great way to act on that shared belief.
“Tilth Soil has a great story,” she concludes, “and one that Heinen’s is delighted to be part of.”
For more information on Tilth Soil, including descriptions of all available soil types and bulk soil purchases, visit their website at https://www.tilthsoil.com/.
To learn more about Rust Belt Riders and the composting services they provide for individuals and institutions, visit their website at https://www.rustbeltriders.com/.
Tilth Soil is currently available at select Cleveland Heinen’s locations including:
- Shaker Heights
- University Heights
- Pepper Pike
- Bay Village
- Rocky River
- Mayfield Heights
- Middleburg Heights
- Chagrin Falls