Anina Estrem is a Communities in Action AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team in Forsyth, MT.
As Rosebud students start to file into the cafeteria, I grab a tray and join the faculty for lunch. As we eat, I talk with one of the science teachers about developing a science fair project for the 5th graders using compost. Many of the younger students don’t know exactly what composting is, so this project would be a perfect opportunity to educate the student body. We discuss experimenting whether plants–maybe beans or peas–grow better in compost or in commercial potting soil. This fits perfectly into my aspiration of using compost to start a school vegetable garden.
Every Monday and Friday, I carry the bucket we use to collect compost scraps to the cafeteria and set it up next to the garbage can. Although by now students are familiar with the process, they still occasionally dump their trays into the wrong bin, so I tape signs to each bucket stating which one is compost and which one is garbage. On the wall behind me I put up my compost poster, brand-new by request of the kindergarteners who insisted that my old sign was too boring. I hope to impress them with my use of glitter paint and colorful illustrations of compostable foods.
Once the older students start to finish their lunches, they bring their trays up to the compost bin where I stand offering guidance and enthusiasm as they toss their lunches into the correct bins. These students hardly need my input, as composting has become a routine part of the meal. For the elementary students, however, composting has not yet lost its fascination.
As they file in, I hear whispers of “compost day!” “look at the new sign,” and “she’s back again?” as they admire the new poster. The kindergarteners and first graders eat their lunches at the table directly in front of me, and throughout the meal I’m barraged with questions about what food can go in the compost, what will be done with the compost, and to read what my signs say. At the end of lunch they are meticulous about cleaning off their trays, precariously balancing them with one hand as they ensure every piece of carrot, each breadcrumb and scrape of applesauce goes into the compost bin. Once they finish eating, several of my ‘composting stars’ enthusiastically volunteer to help me supervise their peers as they dispose of their lunch scraps.
Behind Rosebud School sit two huge, beautiful compost bins, one of which is slowly filling up with cafeteria lunch scraps. Made from pallets and straw and wrapped in plastic, Rosebud students built these bins in November in a composting workshop with Mike Dalton, founder of Gardens from Garbage in Great Falls. Mike taught us how our leftover food will eventually transform into a rich garden fertilizer and then led the 7th-12thgraders in a fun afternoon constructing these bins. Twice a week since then I have helped students collect their compost at lunchtimes.
|Anina Estrem and Mike Dalton|
By the end of lunch, I collect anywhere from a pound to thirty pounds of food waste from Rosebud’s 80 students, depending on the meal. Today was pizza day, which produced little waste, so I easily carry the bucket out to our compost bin and dump the food in with a handful of Bokashi and some straw.
Instead of traditional hot composting, Rosebud School has adopted the Bokashi method, a cold, low maintenance technique that requires adding a handful of Bokashi to the compost, which is a mix of EM-1 microbes and wheat bran. Bokashi helps turn food waste into nutritious compost in several months instead of the year that hot composting requires and needs no turning or other maintenance.
Although composting is not a direct aspect of FoodCorps’ mission, it has proved to be an essential tool for change in Rosebud. When gardening was first met with a lukewarm response, I had to look for other ways to engage students with their food. Composting has done just that by encouraging them to consider what is left on their plate every day. Students were astonished and excited to learn that they could recycle their food, and slowly we are transforming this enthusiasm for making compost into an interest in using it. In a region with limited access to fresh food and a short growing season, the idea of starting a school garden does not come naturally. By acting as a stepping stone between where school lunches come from and where they can end up, composting is helping to make a garden more and more feasible. I’m excited to see that a solid foundation of compost may be just what it takes for Rosebud to grow both a healthy garden and student engagement with their food.