Becoming a Backyard Farmer

Have you ever wanted to start your own garden, but excuses stopped you before the thought became a real idea? I’ve known it would be an enjoyable hobby and environmentally friendly to grow some of my own food but I thought “it’ll cost too much” or “I don’t have the tools.” These thoughts had me stuck for years, but I have now finally decided to start a garden on my student budget.

Beginning the process – Start with considering some simple spatial questions like how much outdoor space do I have to utilize? and do I have outdoor space that receives adequate sunlight throughout the day?

I don’t have a fenced backyard, but I do have a south facing front yard that begins to receive sunlight early in the morning and doesn’t fade till the sun sets. I have a space roughly 15 feet by 5 feet to the left of my front porch with plenty of space so I decided to start there. The next thing I decided was that it would be wiser to build a planter box since I’m renting and I don’t know the soil history of the yard. After these questions are addressed, it is time to start making some moves.

Acquiring supplies – It doesn’t take much to create a nice garden and if you don’t need a planter box, the list of components is even shorter.

In order to build an 8’ x 3’ x 1.5’ planter box, you will need:


Table listing materials, price, and quantity.

Beginning the build – First things first, I measured, marked and cut the 2 foot posts and the 10 foot boards into 6 – 3ft 3in long boards. I then began with the short sides. I put the 2 foot posts, a couple inches short of 3 feet apart, placed a 3 foot board at the top, made sure they made a 90° angle and screwed them together. After the first was on, I simply placed the other two on and screwed them into place.

photo #2

The 3-foot sides attached to the 2-foot posts.

After I had constructed the two short sides, I stood them on their sides and attached the 8ft boards to make a rectangular box.

photo #3

Attaching the 8-foot boards to the sides of the 2-foot post to make a rectangle.

Because the planter box is going to be sitting outside, I decided to apply wood stain to help the wood last longer in the elements.

photo #4

Planter box after two coats of Varathane Brand wood stain.

Most wood stains are toxic if directly ingested, but when given the proper amount of time to dry, it becomes safe to add your dirt and seeds! If you are curious for more information, check out some woodworking related websites like Popular Woodworking.

Next step – Buying soil for your garden. This is the step that can often be costly if you are purchasing your garden soil from a well-known landscaping company that insists on delivering the soil to your home. I decided to see if I could find an alternative, cheaper option, so I jumped on the web. I found a local, family owned company called Rio Rancho Tractor Service, that keeps topsoil, manure and mixed soil for $30 a truck load if you can haul it yourself.

photo #5

Loading my truck was super easy and quick, thanks to Steven Espinosa at Rio Rancho Tractor Service.

If you are an aspiring gardener, or have any dirt/manure related projects, I definitely recommend checking out Rio Rancho Tractor Service’s Facebook page.

Placing the planter box – I dug holes for each post, placed the planter box and then backed my truck right up to it.

photo #6

Once the post holes are dug and the planter box is in its spot, start shoveling!

Choosing and planting – Now comes the fun part, planting! If you are a beginner and don’t quite know what to start with, check out your county’s extension agents. If you’re in New Mexico, utilize the Bernalillo County Cooperative Extension Service!

I chose to plant some garlic, potato, and shallots bulbs, along with tomatoes and leafy green starters from Rehm’s Nursery and Garden Center. After everything was in the ground, it was time to water and watch them grow!

The area where I live hasn’t seen its last frost yet so I bought a wall-o-water set to ensure my tomato plants would survive the cold nights. The wall-o-water is a simple way to utilize passive solar energy to keep warm climate plants comfortable through the frosty days.

Good luck, now it’s your turn! – Hopefully I’ve proven the point that starting your own garden isn’t that hard. In total, constructing my planter box took one weekend and it cost just under $120. If a busy, full time student like myself can accomplish completing a project like this in my budget, then you can too. Just don’t forget to water daily!

-posted by Jason
*all photos by author

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The Top Three Reasons Why You Should Switch to a Plant Based Diet

Sustainability is such an important concept that we need to be incorporating in all aspects of our lives.  Recycling, carpooling, and turning the lights off when you’re not in the room are all great starts, but we need to take it a step further. Taking a look at what we eat, where it comes from, and its impact on the environment can make a huge difference in our carbon footprint and the overall health of the planet. Plant-based diets are often intimidating, but they can come in many varieties that still meet your family’s needs, are great for your health, and great for the environment. These are the three real reasons why we should all make the switch to more plant-based diets.

Plant based diets come in many different varieties. Plant based and vegan are often used interchangeably, but they don’t mean the same thing. While being vegan could be the end goal as the most sustainable version of the plant based diet, it is not always the most realistic when starting out. Plant based diets can come in many forms that start by cutting out as many animal products as you can without sacrificing everything you love all at once. Plant based diets can range from vegetarian, pescatarian (still eating fish), only cutting out dairy, or only cutting out eggs. Any of these changes is a great first step into transitioning to a plant based diet. However, the beef industry is a huge contributor to the rapid climate change crisis and the emission of greenhouse gasses. If there is any one thing that would make the biggest impact immediately it would be cutting out all beef products from your diet.

Animal agriculture is one of the largest man-made polluters. Animal agriculture has exploded in this country at such a massive scale that it is hurting our environment in an alarming way. Animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of climate change, deforestation, water and air pollution. The biggest way animal agriculture is contributing to climate change is through emissions of greenhouse gasses. The production of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide is so large that it accounts of 18% of greenhouse gasses, which is more than all global transportation combined. This breaks down to 9% of total carbon dioxide emission, 37% of total methane emissions, and 65% of total nitrous oxide emissions – globally. Changing your diet and lifestyle can be intimidating, but the impact it can make is great for our planet. By switching to a plant-based diet we can cut the emissions coming from animal agriculture almost in half, and reduce land use, and water and air pollution coming from this industry.

Eating more fruits and veggies can have amazing health impacts.  Increasing your intake of fruits and veggies can help reduce your risks of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and help increase blood flow that can help aid in healing preexisting health issues. Eating more plant based can also aid in losing weight because you are eating foods with fewer calories that are packed with nutrients. While eating plant based you may be tempted with meat and cheese alternatives, which can help you transition your diet, but sticking to unprocessed fruits, veggies, grains, nuts and legumes will provide your nutrition needs without any unnecessary fillers.

Figure 3; Plant based pyramid

How the food pyramid would be modified to fit a plant based diet. Source:

There are plenty of other ethical and health reasons why we should all be eating more plant based. The three reasons discussed above are great starting points to help kick start a new lifestyle that can help the environment and improve your health. Plant based diets can help lower the high rates of cancer and obesity we have in this world, and reduce the damage that has already been done to our planet because of climate change.

-Posted by Jade

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Food + Insecurity = Chronic Diseases

Let’s first start by asking what is food insecurity and how is it linked to chronic diseases? According to the Economic Research Service, food insecurity is categorized in two groups: low food security is reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet with little or no indication of reduced food intake, and  very low food security is multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake. This study found that households that experienced frequent or chronic food insecurity had different economic and demographic characteristics than those that experienced more severe food insecure conditions of shorter duration. The study also found that greater food insecurity is associated with higher probability of chronic diseases such as hypertension, coronary heart disease, hepatitis, stroke, cancer, asthma, diabetes, arthritis, COPD, and kidney disease.


ERS Food Security Status probability of any chronic condition among adults.

Hunger and food insecurity are closely related but distinct concepts. Hunger refers to a personal, physical sensation of discomfort, while food insecurity refers to a lack of available financial resources for food at the level of the household. Food insecurity is not an isolated issue, as low-income families are affected by overlapping issues such as health problems, medical costs and social isolation. This cycle of food insecurity and the extending consequences make maintaining a healthy lifestyle extremely difficult.


The cycle of food insecurity relating to chronic disease.

Many people in the Land of Enchantment are affected by food insecurity. In New Mexico, 21 percent of the total population, and 30 percent of children live at or below the federal poverty level. New Mexico is a poor state, with some of the highest rates of food insecurity and many adults and children suffering from nutrition related illnesses.


NM working family’s incomes below 200% of the poverty level (2013)

The strong link between food insecurity and obesity can be counter-intuitive, but studies show that cost constraints often force low-income individuals to decrease their intake of costly lean meats, dairy and fresh produce while increasing their intake of cheaper and more satiating foods containing processed grains and added sugar and fats. In addition to obesity, food-insecure individuals with poor nutrition are more likely to have chronic conditions.

There is also strong evidence that eating more fruits and vegetable can offset these chronic diseases for low and very low food secure people particularly, and with the help of government and local programs that provide access. Some programs have even expanded their reach to facilitate a partnership with low income people and farmers via farmers’ markets.

So how does New Mexico address accessibility for those who are low or very low food secure?  There are several nutrition programs that are bridging the gap to offset food insecurity and prevent – or reverse – chronic illness among adults and children.


FFVP through New Mexico PED

One of these initiatives is The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP), a federally assisted program through the New Mexico Public Education Department. It has been successful in introducing school children to a variety of produce that they otherwise might not have the opportunity to sample. The goal is to increase overall acceptance and consumption of fresh, unprocessed produce among children. The FFVP also encourages healthier school environments by promoting nutrition education.


Roadrunner Food Bank,  assisting New Mexicans for over 35 years.

Roadrunner Food Bank is a part of a 200-member network of food banks and currently assists 70,000 hungry people in New Mexico every week. Roadrunner also provides an onsite Healthy Foods Center, a medical referral food pantry providing healthy options to those affected by the cycle of insecurity. In its 18-month pilot phase, more than 455 households were served. To support nutrition education Roadrunner provides a demonstration kitchen with cooking activities and easy recipes to share.


Who is hungry in New Mexico? RRFB assists many families and seniors each week.

Another Federally-assisted program, SNAP, is the largest domestic hunger safety net for low-income people. Through the EBT financial card system, participating farmers’ markets and grocery stores have incentivized card users to purchase local fruits and vegetables with the Double Up Food Bucks program. If you spend $30 from your EBT card SNAP benefits, you will receive a matching $30 for local fresh produce. As of 2018 this program is available at 80 outlets in New Mexico, making access easy and affordable. The goal is to have low-income consumers eat healthy, support local New Mexican farmers and help food dollars stay in the local economy.


ICAN through NMSU supports the community by offering nutrition education through cooking lessons and food management.

New Mexico State University’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences created a program called ICAN that offers free cooking classes to adults and youth. The focus is on preparing quick and nutritious meals using healthy foods, while ultimately saving money at the grocery store.  The program also promotes eating more whole grains and being physically active.

New Mexico is well on its way to fighting food insecurity.  It will take increased access to statewide partners, and a shift in cultural attitudes to sustain these programs. At some point, someone we know – or even ourselves – may need help.

-Posted by Saudika

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Why are Cattle in the Desert?

New Mexico is a desert biome subject to drought, a place where water is a sacred commodity. Monitoring residential usage while ensuring equitable dispersal of water are common concerns in our region. New Mexico directs 78 percent of its water budget exclusively to irrigated agriculture. According to the Office of the State Engineer, livestock account for just one percent of all water use. In this context livestock are not directly credited with the entirety of their water footprint, which includes the water utilized to grow alfalfa and other grasses/grains dedicated to feeding them. Animal agriculture is unsustainable not only from a perspective of water consumption, but also in terms of energy efficiency (calorically speaking). Regardless, the full extent of animal agriculture’s water consumption should be of our greatest immediate concern.

Visual 1

Summary of Estimated Water Use in the United States in 2005 from the USGS. Showing water withdrawn nationally by category.

The full scope of livestock and dairy farming’s water usage cannot be observed from a surface view. The direct water usage of livestock typically expressed in data sets include drinking water, service uses (e.g. sanitization of slaughterhouses), and for mixing into feed. For example, according to a USGS 2005 summary on estimated water usage, livestock account for only one percent of water withdrawal in the United States. Additionally, agricultural data for irrigated crops tends to be inclusive, confounding animal forage with consumer crops. Therefore, people may assume that our water is primarily applied to plant-based foods intended for direct human consumption.

Although it is known that animal products are very water intensive, little attention has been paid thus far to the total impact of the livestock sector on the global demand for freshwater resources.”  

Despite these assumptions, the impact of animal agriculture is quite water intensive – especially the industrial/commercial animal industries. However, there are varying types of production systems that use different sources of water. Industrial systems such as CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) use significantly more concentrated feed requiring more “blue water,” the volume of surface and groundwater consumed, factoring in evaporation losses. Whereas, grazing systems rely primarily on “green water” (rainwater), due to livestock’s consumption of roughages (undomesticated vegetation) as their primary feed. The water footprint of concentrated feed (e.g. grain, corn, or alfalfa) is far greater than that of grazing (or mixed systems).

Animal farming puts the lowest pressure on freshwater systems when dominantly based on crop residues, waste, and roughages.”

Grazing is the least intensive method, accounting for only 3.6 percent of the total global water footprint, mainly for “drinking and service use.” Industrial systems utilize collected rainwater as well, comprising 82 percent of the industrial system’s 22.3 percent of total global agricultural water footprint.

Visual 2

Visual 2.1

A Global Assessment of the Water Footprint of Farm Animal Products. Mesfin M. Mekonnen and Arjen Y. Hoekstra. This table shows different types of water category withdrawal in cubic meters per ton based on different agricultural systems and types of animal products.

Beef cattle have the largest contribution (33%) to the global water footprint of farm animal production, followed by dairy cattle (19%).”

The lifetime water usage of cattle is alarming on a global level: during the average life span of beef cattle (3 years), an individual uses 1,899 cubic meters of water, and annually beef cattle collectively use 798 cubic gigameter of water! More strikingly, during the average life span of dairy cattle (10 years), an individual uses over 20,000 cubic gigameter of water. Collectively, dairy cattle annually consume 469 cubic gigameter of water!

Visual 3

A Global Assessment of the Water Footprint of Farm Animal Products. Mesfin M. Mekonnen and Arjen Y. Hoekstra. This table shows average lifetime and annual use of different livestock animals.

Beef requires a hefty 15,415 cubic meters of water per ton of food produced. Dairy products include: butter (5,553 cubic meters of water/ton) and milk (1,000 cubic meters of water/ton). In contrast, pulses (4,055 cubic meters of water/ton) combine to a fraction of the water footprint of beef. Overall, if plant and animal metrics are summed together separately and pitted against each other, plant agriculture demands less water. For example, per calorie of beef produced the water expenditure is 20 times greater than for starches and cereal crops.

“The general conclusion is that from a freshwater perspective, it is more efficient to obtain calories, protein, and fat through crop products than animal products.”

Visual 4

A Global Assessment of the Water Footprint of Farm Animal Products. Mesfin M. Mekonnen and Arjen Y. Hoekstra. This table shows categorical water withdrawal for animal and plant agriculture relating to their nutritional content/value.

So, the inherent trend on a globe scale shows that cattle are demonstrably water intensive and energy inefficient. Then, why would we continue to focus our food industry in New Mexico on dairy and beef cattle rather than on maximizing consumer (non-forage) crops? “Replacing all meat by an equivalent amount of crop products such as pulses and nuts will result in a 30% reduction of the food-related water footprint of the average American citizen.” Thus, we know that plant-based foods are not only healthier for our bodies, but vital to a more sustainable future for our water resources.

-Posted by Tyrel

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Local and Whole Foods Helped My Severe Allergies

The term allergy is used quite often, but what exactly does it mean? An allergy is another word for rhinitis, which means “inflammation of the nose.” It refers to the reaction of cells in one’s body to irritants, or triggers, that result in the release of histamines and other chemicals. These chemicals present symptoms such as swelling, itching, hives, and, in severe cases, a fatal shut-down of the body known as anaphylactic shock. Unfortunately, seasonal allergies have increased over the years, as have food allergies in children by almost 50% between 1997 and 2011.

Have you ever gotten itchy eyes in the spring? Or cannot seem to stop sneezing when you’re outside? Many people possess seasonal or environmental allergies that cause them to react to particles that float around in the air. One of the most common environmental allergies is pollen. To combat this allergy, many will visit a clinic and get multiple shots to slowly build up tolerance to specific allergens that are contained in the shot itself. Similar to this process, ingesting local honey can combat a pollen allergy in the same way. Bees collect pollen from flowering plants, shrubs, and trees, many of which contribute to seasonal allergies. According to Mark Sisson of Mark’s Daily Apple, one should start by ingesting small amounts of honey, about ¼ of a teaspoon daily, and increase the dosage gradually each day to build tolerance. In a study conducted at the International Islamic University Malaysia, those who were treated with high doses of honey showed progressive improvement in their allergy symptoms. So, next time you have itchy eyes when going outside, try a daily dose of local honey to build your tolerance to the allergens around you.


This is my favorite local honey that I use to build my tolerance to seasonal allergies. Purchased at The Los Poblanos Farm Shop. Photo by author.

Food allergies are another issue. Some are minor with itchiness and hives while others are severe, resulting in anaphylaxis or death. Sometimes, even when a food one is allergic to touches another food that is consumed, an allergic reaction can still occur. This is called cross contamination, and may occur within a facility that processes many different products. When food is processed in a factory, there is a possibility that threatening foods that are processed on the same equipment can come in contact or contaminate other products.


Vegetable processing facility. Cauliflower, broccoli, and carrots going through “bulk feeders, conveyors, elevators, lifts and tippers, de-stoning systems, cleaning riddles, storing units, steam peeling vessels, de-skinning, grading and screw augers.” Photo by Polar Systems Equipment.

Whole foods are foods that are as close to their natural form as possible that undergo only the bare minimum of processing or refining before being consumed. In a study published in the Allergy and Clinical Immunology Journal, babies who were fed home-prepared, unprocessed foods possessed fewer food allergies through growth compared to babies who were fed processed foods. Therefore, not only can whole foods help those who possess food allergies, they can also prevent food allergies from developing in the future.


These children eat whole apples as they come straight from the farm and skip the processing facility. Photo by Bellamy’s Organic.

A sustainable way to get your hands on whole food is by purchasing from small, local farmers. This is because near-by, small-scale farms offer products that undergo little processing. Also, because small-scale farmers tend to sell their products directly to consumers, they are able to avoid middlemen and thus, they can offer higher quality, fresher products. In addition, a small, local farmer may be easier to contact than a larger, more distant producer. If needed, one may even be able to see the food they are going to consume throughout the growing and production process, while being able to ask the farmer direct questions about the product.

I experienced this when I visited a local Albuquerque farmer, Lorenzo Candelaria, and his farm in September of 2017. I helped work on the farm for a day and was able to view and see the food and saw everything that occurred to it. It was a transparent experience as not only was I able to see the food but I was able to ask Lorenzo directly about the produce.

Allergy precaution is a very important issue and local, whole foods can provide a solution. I speak from experience as I possess more than twenty different food allergies – one of which is fatal – and numerous environmental allergies as a result of an anaphylaxis accident in April 2015. The potential for cross contamination has caused me anxiety, especially when purchasing from large-scale grocery stores and chain restaurants because I had no idea where my food was coming from. I was terrified of losing my life over a meal or a snack, and developed an anxiety connected to every meal I consumed. Explaining my allergies to another person was another challenge as I feared others would not take the issue as seriously as I did. I would explain my “allergy card” that I made to waiters and waitresses in hopes that I would receive serious answers about the food I was ordering.


My allergy card that I would present to servers at restaurants. The class indicates the severity of each allergy. Photo by author.

I began to purchase local and whole three years ago. This helped me feel less anxious about my food and also significantly improved my health. I knew that if I had a question about the food I could easily get in contact with the grower. I had developed facial swelling and abdominal pain that is now almost absent. I cook healthy, nutritious meals at home with my family. How did I make this shift? I found the local hotspots, co-ops, and growers’ markets near where I live, my main stops being the La Montanita Co-op and the Downtown Growers’ Market. I created the habit of cooking at home by researching recipes, mostly on Pinterest, that contained the local ingredient I would purchase at the co-op or the market. I fell in love with the cooking and experimenting process as well as using cooking as a time to spend at home with my family while also helping them eat healthier. A couple of my favorite recipes include roasted carrots, lettuce-wrap tacos, and shaped chocolates.

-Posted by Destiny

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Save the date for the 11th Annual UNM Sustainability Expo

You’re invited to join us for the 11th Annual UNM Sustainability Expo, happening this year on Thursday, April 18 from 10:30am to 2:30pm on Cornell Mall. The Expo will feature a local growers’ market, interactive educational displays, and a clothing swap. The event will also showcase numerous alternative transportation, energy conservation, waste reduction, and sustainable lifestyle practices. Our intention is that attendees connect with campus and community partners, and leave the Expo inspired to take action in their personal lives.

Grab lunch from the Street Food Institute or My Sweet Basil food trucks, and stick around for live music from Santa Fe-based fol artist Eryn Bent during the noon hour. Interact with sustainability-minded organizations at a variety of engaging displays and activities. Learn about sustainable initiatives on campus and in the surrounding community. Bring home some plant starts for your backyard garden or some fresh produce for dinner.

This Expo is organized by UNM students in the Sustainability Studies Program Local Food Systems Practicum class. Longtime coordinating partners include the UNM Office of Sustainability and UNM Parking and Transportation Services.

Stay up to date on Expo happenings on our Facebook page. Come celebrate Earth Day with us – a few days early – on April 18!

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Albuquerque Residential Composting Program

A fair question to ask is why should I care about composting? Does it even really make a difference? The best way to answer that is through the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Food Recovery Hierarchy. The schematic highlights the ways to divert potential food waste from the landfill, ranked from most preferred to least preferred. Composting is the last step to divert organic waste from joining the trash pile. Organic waste in landfills produces a significant amount more of the greenhouse gas methane than it does when it is properly composted. The EPA reports that in 2014, Americans recovered over 23 MILLION TONS of municipal solid waste through composting. Composted waste gets turned into a nutrient-rich input that can be used to build soil health.


The EPA Food Recovery Hierarchy highlights the most effective ways to reduce food waste.

The idea of a city wide composting program is not new. Large, urban cities such as Seattle and San Francisco have implemented mandatory composting initiatives that are run alongside their existing solid waste programs. Organic waste is sorted into its own bin and set out next to the trash and recycling bins once a week to be picked up by the city. The material is then taken to an industrial sized composting facility to be broken down into rich and healthy compost. This compost is used to fortify the soil to grow more produce.


The cycle that is created when organic waste is diverted from the landfill.

In the San Francisco model, residents are charged an average fee of $15.00 per month that covers all three waste containers. The city reports that San Francisco’s zero waste program is funded solely from revenue generated through refuse rates charged to customers. The compost, once complete, is also available to be purchased to be used for residential gardens. It is difficult to compare the cost of the models used by cities because of the wide array of approaches to implementing these programs.


EarthShare shows San Francisco’s organic waste, recycling, and landfill waste bins that are put out for weekly pickup.

How do we adopt a program like this in Albuquerque? The city has made large strides in creating a more sustainable approach to waste management through its Integrated Waste Management Plan created in 2011. This plan outlines short and long term goals to divert waste from landfills, focusing mainly on recycling. The city was able to sign a 12 year agreement with Friedman Recycling to handle city wide recycling. Following this same model, a similar partnership with local companies like Soilutions, based in the South Valley, could make city wide composting a reality. Diane Wikler, the Marketing Manager and Public Information Officer for the Albuquerque Solid Waste Management Department, says that a curbside composting program may be considered down the road but is not currently in the goals for the upcoming Integrated Waste Management Plan. She says that currently, the city encourages residents to create their own compost at home if possible. Residents are also able to take their green waste to three convenience center locations, and two annual green waste collections are offered for yard waste in the fall and spring.


Bay City Refuse shows what materials can go into a composting bin. These are based on industrial composting practices, and differ slightly from backyard composting. recommendations.

Many cities have successfully implemented pilot programs to test the feasibility of a larger program. Often this means voluntary participation in a controlled area. This will test different strategies for collection and participation, and will help determine a pricing structure. San Francisco started with pilot programs in a variety of neighborhoods to successfully test the program in diverse populations. The pilot was successful and also gave information on the most effective types of bins and alternative collection vehicles. Boulder performed an initial pilot of 400 households followed by an expanded pilot of 2,400 households, both of which showed how successful the program could be. Four years after the initial pilot the city was able to offer curbside compostable collections to the entire city. In Albuquerque, potential grant funding from organizations like the Keep Albuquerque Beautiful Initiative, part of the non-profit organization Keep America Beautiful and an affiliate of the Solid Waste Management Department, could help create a pilot program. This would be a big step towards diverting waste from the landfill and creating a more sustainable city.


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