2017-04-21 / Education

Richland County helps students turn lunch food into plant food

Contributed by Richland County

More than 7,000 pounds of food waste have been diverted from landfills and transformed into plant food through a pilot composting program at a local elementary school.

Richland County Solid Waste & Recycling (SW&R) partnered with Dutch Fork Elementary School last fall to try out a new program aimed at reducing the amount of food waste that gets tossed in the trash.

Through a grant from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, SW&R was able to provide the school with the necessary components—a scale, collection bins, transport carts, and collection service— to initiate the program.

“The students really welcomed the idea, and I think a lot of teachers became more informed, too, of all the things that can actually be composted,” said Amy Umberger, resident scientist of Dutch Fork Elementary School and faculty in charge of the composting program.

Each day during lunch, student helpers and cafeteria staff direct students where unwanted items from their lunch trays belong: recycle bin, landfill bin or food waste bin. The food scraps are collected every Friday by SMART Recycling, an organics hauling company, and dropped off at ReSoil, a nearby composting facility where the food is transformed into compost.

Recently, students unloaded their very first bags of lunch-turned-compost and used the organic fertilizer in the school’s gardens. About three weeks worth of food waste produced 15 bags of compost.

“It’s like all the food we waste at lunch, we don’t really waste anymore,” said fourth-grader Cole, as he spread compost around several spinach plants in a raised bed. “We compost stuff like pancakes, chicken, apples, and corn dogs.”

Umberger said while the students enjoy engaging in the food waste reduction program at lunchtime, it’s seeing the actual compost— holding it in their hands and using it in the gardens— that makes the biggest impact as to how the process works.

“ What’s especially great is a lot of these kids are taking what they’re learning about composting and gardening at school and applying it at home and educating their family members,” Umberger said.

Food from the gardens, which includes blueberries, tomatoes, spinach, lettuce, carrots, strawberries, and broccoli, is used in the teachers’ salad bar and sold to parents, with proceeds returning to the garden fund.

“ We couldn’t be happier with how this test program took off at Dutch Fork,” said Art Braswell, director of Richland County Solid Waste & Recycling. “Helping to educate students about the cyclical nature of food waste, compost and plant food, reducing the overall trash output from an entire school, and seeing kids get genuinely excited about recycling and composting definitely qualifies this program as a success.”

With the food waste reduction program working wonders at Dutch Fork Elementary School, SW&R hopes to expand the program to other schools in Richland County, spreading the word that unwanted lunch food can become much-wanted plant food.

“I like helping in the cafeteria and showing people where everything should be thrown away,” said Dutch Fork fourth-grader Jaylen. “It’s like, why waste something if you don’t have to?”

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