May 18, 2022

The Unlikely Ascent of New York’s Compost Champion

An ad led to Domingo Morales falling in love with compost. A windfall is helping him spread the word.

There were good reasons Domingo Morales, a city kid from the Bronx, didn’t want to try his hand at urban farming. He was terrified of germs. He thought vegetables were disgusting. Plus, everyone knows the ground in New York City is shot through with lead.

But Mr. Morales’s bosses in 2015 really wanted him to give it a shot, so he did. To his astonishment, he loved it. And though he couldn’t know it at the time, Mr. Morales would fall in love with insects, bacteria and even vegetables, and before long, become arguably the most famous compost guy in New York.

Mr. Morales, a doe-eyed, vibrant 30-year-old once known on the street as “Reckless,” is on a mission to make composting cool, by which he means accessible to everyone, by which he means the people he grew up around in hard-bitten neighborhoods in New York City.

Through a program Mr. Morales created that brings composting to public housing, home to as many as 600,000 New Yorkers, he is showing his community what, for him, is still an astonishment: Recycling food scraps can help them grow nutritious food.

“For many years, compost has been that evil, stinky upper class thing that white people do,” Mr. Morales said. “But it’s really a great introduction to sustainability as a whole.”

The climate benefits could be immense. Food scraps and yard waste make up a third of everything New Yorkers throw away and, once in landfills, release vast amounts of methane, which traps far more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Composting food waste can drastically slash those emissions.

Mr. Morales’s devotion to that end, and infectious enthusiasm, has landed him an ever-widening spotlight. He has been named “New Yorker of the Week” by the television station NY1, and profiled on the “How to Save a Planet” podcast as well as by the climate site Grist. In the fall of 2020, he won a $200,000 prize to take his composting ideas citywide, after which his face appeared on a billboard in Dumbo, Brooklyn.

All of which are remarkable feats for anyone, not least Mr. Morales, whose onetime goal in life was to make it to 18 alive.

“To be a kid from the hood and then person on the news, an educator, teacher, mentor, role model — it’s good,” Mr. Morales said.

Garrulous and affable, Mr. Morales all but fizzes with energy and ideas. As he threaded his way through the streets of Harlem after visiting one of his compost sites one recent day, he pointed to a community garden: He’s aching to stage an intervention on its saggy looking compost bins and install a concrete pad that would deter rats and make shoveling easier. He also thinks the manual labor involved in composting could be packaged as outdoor workouts he’d call “Motion With Meaning,” and is working on a video series.

“I have all this burning energy that never dwindles,” Mr. Morales said. “It’s just there.”

Stamina was drilled into him early. Mr. Morales grew up with six siblings in Soundview Houses, a public housing complex in the Bronx. On her paydays, to save on subway fare, his mother had the whole family walk some 15 miles to Red Hook, Brooklyn, where she worked as a home health aide, to pick up her check. To help with rent, Mr. Morales sold candy on the subway, often getting ticketed for illegally moving between subway cars.

The family moved to public housing in East Harlem where Mr. Morales, who is small in stature, learned to fight. After his stepfather got arrested and charged with marijuana possession, the kids were split up and sent to foster care. “My whole family was destroyed for weed,” Mr. Morales said. Yearning to belong, Mr. Morales befriended guys who hung out on the street. Some committed suicide, others were stabbed or shot.

At 17, Mr. Morales learned that his girlfriend was pregnant; they had a second child two years later. Mr. Morales found work as a hotel porter, a repairman, a computer technician. “I always mastered the job, it became very boring, the same thing over and over, and in most cases I was underpaid,” he said. After quitting a salad bar gig that paid $6.75 an hour, he sank into despair.

On one especially dark day, Mr. Morales was heading into his building when he saw a notice for Green City Force, a nonprofit that trains young people from public housing for solar installation, horticulture and other green jobs.

“I thought, ‘Maybe this flier is for me, maybe this is a sign from the universe that I’m still needed, that there’s something I could be useful for,’” Mr. Morales recalled. “It was either ‘All right, I’m taking the elevator to the roof right now, or I’m taking this flier to my apartment.’”

He took the flier, and his world opened up.

At Green City Force, Mr. Morales quickly became known for his larger-than-life personality, boundless curiosity, and tirelessness, according to Lisbeth Shepherd, the nonprofit’s co-founder and former executive director. Mr. Morales learned about food injustice as he built garden beds and planted seeds, out in the sun and fresh air. His despondency lifted.

Three mornings a week, he worked at a large compost site in Red Hook, Brooklyn, run by a climate activist and lawyer, David Buckel. The site was entirely hand-powered, using no fossil fuels, and became Mr. Morales’s outdoor classroom, and Mr. Buckel his teacher and confidant.

Mr. Morales learned that when food scraps are properly composted, the end result is a marvelous resource: Nutrient-rich soil that strengthens plants and also serves as a carbon sink.

“Composting is the only form of recycling you can do from start to finish and watch your work be put to good use,” Mr. Morales said.

He learned how to build compost pyramids with fresh food scraps in the middle, insulated by older material, which deterred rodents, and that properly churned compost doesn’t smell bad. He learned about worm bins, three-bin compost systems, and how black soldier flies could help decompose meat and dairy products, which are often compost no-nos.

Hired to work at the Red Hook site full time, Mr. Morales put in long hours, and, in an echo of his childhood treks, often Rollerbladed to work. At night, he headed back to East Harlem to a fractious home life (by then he and the mother of his children had split up) with gang violence nearby. “Red Hook was this oasis, my safe space, my home,” Mr. Morales said. “David was the only person I was comfortable talking to.”

Early in 2018, Mr. Morales was hit with a series of losses. His biological father died, followed a week later by his cat, Max. One morning in mid-April, unthinkable news arrived. In an act of climate protest, Mr. Buckel had committed suicide by setting himself on fire in Prospect Park.

Reeling, Mr. Morales and a co-worker headed to a nearby bar. He ended up taking over operations at the site, keeping it running, sometimes by himself, and fought for dwindling city funding until mid-2020, when he was laid off.

But, once again, brighter skies lay ahead.

Launched in 2019 in honor of the billionaire real estate developer David Walentas, the David Prize awards $200,000 to people committed to improving New York. Upon hearing about it, Ms. Shepherd thought of Mr. Morales.

“He immediately saw the need to have people have a hands-on experience with compost, because of the magic that happens when you yourself are the person taking food scraps and seeing them turn into something powerful that helps plants and food grow,” Ms. Shepherd said.

With his winnings, Mr. Morales built compost systems at five public housing sites in four boroughs that housed Green City Force urban vegetable farms, with more planned. He has a paid staff of nine, all young public housing tenants.

He called his initiative “Compost Power,” and gave it the slogan “Making Composting Cool.” The sites have produced at least 30 tons of finished compost, he said, all directly added to adjoining farms.

For residents who worry about rats, Mr. Morales points out that his odorless systems don’t attract them, and that his teams collapse any rat tunnels they find. For residents concerned about food, Mr. Morales shows how compost helps grow healthy vegetables. Compost Power also runs children’s workshops where Mr. Morales likes to talk about collaboration with the F.B.I. “Police officers?” the kids ask wondrously. “No! Fungus, bacteria and insects,” Mr. Morales replies, and then hands out magnifying glasses so they can see the life that teems in the compost.

“He’s super invested in community and for others to come after him,” said Tonya Gayle, executive director of Green City Force. “That’s a game changer.”

Mr. Morales doesn’t live full time in New York anymore. After Mr. Buckel’s death, the only place he found solace was in the woods of rural Pennsylvania, where he stayed with his cousin. As the pandemic bore down, he and his wife, who works in software, bought a place there, and grow tomatoes, Swiss chard, kale, spinach, potatoes, and all sorts of beans. During the week, working in New York, Mr. Morales stays with relatives, agonizing about the carbon footprint of his one-and-a-half-hour commute; he’s planted trees on his property to help offset it. He’s hoping to buy the new Ford F-150 electric truck, partly because he heard it can double as a generator.

Mr. Morales wants to one day go to college, possibly an Ivy League, but in the meantime is working to expand the number of Compost Power sites, and train his staff to eventually take over.

“Everybody should like it, everybody should want it,” Mr. Morales said. “It should be cool for everybody.”