Courtesy of Domingo Medina

On any given weekday, you may come across a fleet of cyclists traversing New Haven, transporting bins of composted food scraps from 500 households to farms throughout the city.

These cyclists work for Domingo Medina’s compost program, Peels and Wheels, which he founded in 2014 through a partnership with nonprofit organization New Haven Farms. Peels and Wheels consists of six part-time employees who pick up food scraps from households, schools and businesses on bicycles. Scraps are composted at their facility outside the Phoenix Press Farm in New Haven and the compost is delivered to community gardens and urban farms, where it restores and enriches local soil.

“It’s part of the circular economy,” said Medina. “Food waste should go back to the farmers, it should go back to where it came from originally.”

Although the group now serves hundreds of households in the New Haven area, for Medina, founding Peels and Wheels was not clear-cut. From pursuing conservation efforts in Venezuela to finding a sense of place in New Haven and joining the New Haven Farms initiative, Medina said that he views his journey to creating Peels and Wheels in three phases.

Rainforest Conservation in Venezuela

Medina grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, where he worked for several years on conservation efforts for rainforests across the country, approximately 50 percent of which is covered by primary forest. While working with the Asociación Venezolana para la Conservación de Áreas Naturales, or ACOANA, an environmental nonprofit based in Caracas, Medina learned about the distinction between development and conservation.

“Conservation is a social issue … it’s a balance,” Medina said. “It’s different from here in the U.S., where we take people out of nature,” he added, referring to the nation’s historical displacement of indigenous groups.

With ACOANA, Medina investigated the impact of ecotourism, advocated for Indigenous rights and developed regional conservation plans in areas throughout the Caura River Rainforest, Kamarata Valley and Amazonas regions of Venezuela. He said he worked alongside indigenous groups including the Ye’kwana, Kamaracoto and Arekuna communities, helping to combat malaria and lack of access to education.

Medina’s work in Venezuela revolved around maintaining the balance between local populations and their surrounding lands. This balance, Medina explained, provided him with a deep-set appreciation for the land around him, planting the seeds of his journey as an environmentalist.

Local climate activist Chris Schweitzer shared a similar perspective about the relationship between land and people. Schweitzer, a program director at the New Haven/Leon Sister City Project, an organization that encourages sustainable development in both New Haven and Nicaragua, explained that even small-scale family gardens can be “a form of economic development and empowerment.”

“A Sense of Place in New Haven”

When Medina moved to New Haven with his family in 1999 after political and economic tensions escalated in Venezuela, he struggled to find a community.

“The city was foreign to me; I didn’t feel grounded in the beginning,” Medina reflected. “But it was working with the Bioregional Group when I really started to find a sense of place here in New Haven.”

In 2008, Medina joined the New Haven Bioregional Group, an organization that seeks to combat climate change and related injustices by encouraging sustainable living and development. According to Medina, the organization took on a futuristic approach to the climate crisis, discussing issues like climate change, resulting economic instability and peak oil — a hypothesis derived from Marion King Hubbert’s 1956 Peak Theory, which predicted that global crude oil production would hit a maximum before beginning to decline.

“They were talking about this over 15 years ago,” Medina said. “Back when nobody else was talking about it.”

The group’s local focus fostered Medina’s interest in community-oriented environmental efforts.

New Haven Farms

After joining the Bioregional Group, Medina sought to engage in hands-on sustainability efforts alongside New Haven Farms. Founded in 2012, New Haven Farms developed urban farms to teach people with pre-diabetes conditions and diabetes about sustainable strategies to grow and prepare food.

While working for New Haven Farms, Medina noticed that the organization was spending vast sums of money to bring in fertile soil for the farms. In response to this problem, Medina started Peels and Wheels to use food scraps to replenish local soil.

As Peels and Wheels expanded, they broke apart from New Haven Farms as an independent business in 2014.

Since founding Peels and Wheels, Medina said he strives to contribute to a model he calls “the circular green economy,” which seeks to close the gap between food waste and agriculture through composting.

He highlighted the importance of perceiving food scraps as a resource rather than as a waste.  Composting, Medina explained, is among the simplest and most often overlooked strategies to rebuild and maintain organic matter in the soil. 

One of Peels and Wheels’ recent projects includes a partnership with Wilbur Cross High School. The school recently began using Peels and Wheels’ services to inform students on sustainable ways to manage food waste. In addition to composting the school’s waste, Medina and his team also provided two informational sessions on the impact of composting.

“Domingo has done a wonderful job breaking down the whole [composting] process for us,” said Lila Kleppner, a student at Wilbur Cross and an intern for the New Haven Climate Movement’s YCAT program. “He is able to show us the whole picture and impact of composting, while also giving us the specific details on how to proceed.”

Medina also emphasized the role of small-scale initiatives in creating long-lasting environmental change, noting that there are 220 nationwide composting services similar to his own.

“In today’s society, we try to have one solution for everything: governments try to centralize resources and attack them through one specific medium,” he said. “But it’s the many small initiatives that will make a greater change than one big one.”

In addition to improving soil health within New Haven, Medina also explained how food waste boosts the local economy. After the Hartford landfill and the incinerator closed in 2015 and in 2022, respectively, Medina claimed that New Haven’s trash is now largely hauled out of state. This change has had fiscal repercussions, leading West Haven’s waste management budget to increase by $1.5 million. Peels and Wheels aims to reduce the amount of waste the city produces, and consequently, the money it spends on discarding that waste.

“We live in a society where many people are takers,” Medina said. “We have to leave a positive impact on the environment … we have to become leavers.”

Peels and Wheels’ headquarters are located at 15 James St, New Haven.

Natasha Khazzam covers housing and homelessness for city desk. She previously covered climate and the environment. Originally from Great Neck, New York, she is a sophomore in Davenport College majoring in history and English.