Building a Culture of Composting in Greater Chicagoland–Food Waste Technical Assistance for Small Food Businesses

Image of a compost bin, full of food scraps, surrounded by green grass.
“Composting” by Trish walker is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0. To view the terms, visit

Project Title: Building a Culture of Composting in Greater Chicagoland–Food Waste Technical Assistance for Small Food Businesses

Sectors: Small Businesses, Grocery Stores, Caterers, Restaurants/Bars, Food Service, Retail, Hunger Relief Agencies

Location: Greater Chicagoland, Illinois

Services: Fostering Sustainable Behavior, Implementation Assistance, Resilient Solutions, Stakeholder Engagement, Waste Characterization

Background: In fall of 2022, University of Illinois Extension received funding from the Extension Foundation USDA-NIFA New Technologies in Ag Extension (NTAE) program for the expansion of its “Building a Culture of Composting in Greater Chicagoland” project. This project aims to divert food scraps and organic waste from landfills through educational efforts on the benefits of composting. Prior to receipt of this grant, Illinois Extension partnered with community organizations on Chicago’s southside, works with Chicago Public Schools, and promotes composting through “Pumpkin Smash” and other events in Cook County. Grant funds have allowed for the expansion of efforts to Lake and McHenry counties, and collar counties. Illinois Extension also hosted a regional compost summit in May 2023. The Illinois Sustainable Technology Center Technical Assistance Program (TAP) was engaged as a collaborator on the project, to provide food waste technical assistance for small businesses.

Approach: TAP recruited five small food businesses (e.g. restaurants, independent grocery stores, caterers, bakeries, etc.) to receive assistance free of charge (expenses are covered by the NTAE grant). TAP prioritized partnerships in communities overburdened by environmental issues and lacking resources, defined as disadvantaged communities by the Climate & Economic Justice Screen Tool. Taking action to reduce wasted food may help businesses save money, reduce their environmental footprint, feed their community, as well demonstrate their commitment to sustainability. Interested businesses filled out a short application to verify eligibility and clarify required participant time commitments. TAP worked with the five selected participants from March-August 2023.

TAP had initial conversations with each participating business to review operations and provide overview information on strategies and reasons for reducing food waste. Next, TAP staff provided on-site facility assessments of current conditions, infrastructure, and processes. This was followed by a food waste audit for each participating facility, resulting in an initial recommendation report and associated resources. TAP reviewed recommendations with the participant facilities and worked with them to plan implementation. Participants were eligible for funding through the project to pilot a commercial compost hauling service (for up to 5 months). Finally, after and/or during the implementation of recommendations, TAP convened the five participating organizations at a feedback session, so they could share challenges, barriers, and lessons learned. Participants’ efforts were summarized in a case study at the end of the project (see the Results section below).

Ultimately, the goal was to lead interested businesses through the process of assessing current operations and waste generation to identify opportunities for food waste prevention and reduction. Subsequent implementation assistance will hopefully lead to overall waste reduction and increased composting at participating facilities.

Results: Descriptions of the five participating businesses, results of their food waste audits, a summary of recommendations made, project outcomes, and challenges faced by participants are outlined in the project case study below.

Food Waste Technical Assistance for Small Businesses (2023)

Other projects with this client (Illinois Extension): None at this time