A few weeks ago while at the gym, I happened to catch a small portion of a morning news clip. That clip talked about a new statewide initiative to reduce food waste. Most of the details escape me save one. Each year, on average, South Carolinians throw out 640,000 pounds of food.
One person has difficulty comprehending the amount described by such a large number. The mind gets blown when one thinks about the fact that that number describes one state out of fifty in one country out of 196.
I have long been incredibly driven to make good use out of every piece of food I am given to eat. Part of that started when I was young. I remember one time at my grandparents’ house I had finished a bowl of cereal, all save the leftover milk. As I got up to dump out the milk and rinse my bowl, my grandpa asked me where I thought I was going. He made me sit back down and drink that milk before I could leave the table. Nothing went to waste in that house, a byproduct of growing up in the Depression. If a spoonful of vegetables remained in a serving dish at the end of a meal, someone transferred it to a smaller dish to put in the fridge. When we headed to the family beach vacations, any leftovers were bagged up and brought along. Today, even the leavings on the plates are put to use as expected treats for my aunt’s two dogs.
Personally, I have always been reluctant to throw out anything that I have spent time and/or money on. I hate the idea of needless waste, especially when I know that there are many others less fortunate than me. My problem stems directly from my tendency towards procrastination and also a little bit overambitious. I tend to waste food most often in one of the following two scenarios. Either I keep putting off using my perishables or preserving them or I see an interesting product at Costco and create grand plans on how I will use it before expiration. Either way, I end up wasting a lot more food than I am comfortable with.
How does this all tie in with composting? Well, it goes back to that original number in this post, 640,000 pounds of food thrown away. While the number is staggering for sure, it does not surprise me. I witness the food waste first hand at work.
Greenville County Schools offers free breakfast to every student. This is a fantastic initiative. It does, however, lead to additional waste. Many students grab the bags of free food for a single item and then after consuming said item would throw the remainder away. It pained me to see perfectly good apples or unopened cartons of milk and juice head into the trash. A few months ago I started encouraging the students to place any unwanted, unopened items on the corner of my desk. Any other student was then welcome to come take an item. Now a healthy exchange market has developed in my room. It’s rare to have anything left on the corner of my desk after breakfast in the classroom concludes.
My awareness expanded to the lunchroom and the federally mandated fruit portion. I wholeheartedly support the goal of increasing the nutritional quality of students’ diets. It is a long road to haul, however. Change like this takes time which unfortunately leads to hundreds of apples, oranges and other fruit tossed in the garbage. When students have additional money to buy the available sugary “fruit” drinks, the mandatory milks sit unopened or are the tools for ad hoc lunchroom experiments. The amount of fruit left over when students receive an ice cream reward after a good day of testing testifies to the enviable power that sugar holds.
When we are able to, another teacher and I collect the unopened milk cartons, uneaten and un-mutilated (a lot of our fruit suffer fatal straw or fork puncture wounds) fruit. After the first few times, students began asking if they could have various items in the bag as I passed by their table. If I have it, I always give the item to them. Many days this results in only a few items remaining. Those items are consumed as well. Students are welcome to come by my room before or after school. If any remain after this, one of the teachers takes the fruit out to leave for the deer.
Now, after that explanation of the background, I finally come to the specifics of composting. I have considered composting before but never managed to get past the initial hurdle of setting up the compost pile or bin. To say that I am not the best gardener would be a euphemism extraordinaire. My mother and stepfather, however, love plants, are growing a vegetable garden and have started a compost pile. I kept thinking about saving my food waste to add to their pile; eventually that thought got pushed aside by others until I saw that number.
I could not stop thinking about that number and steps that I could take to do my part to decrease it. I started thinking about compost once again and realized that I could collect the unfortunate two-bite apples thrown away in my room from the leftovers. Instead of throwing these apples into the trash can, I now have a separate bag for kids to toss them into so that the waste could be composted.
Many of them started asking why I was doing that so I took the opportunity to show a short video about composting. (That is one upside to completing state testing first.) I watched this video with each class and even got to have an excellent discussion on the why behind so much waste with one of my classes. By the end of the day I had also purchased a 1.3 gallon bin to place on my countertop so that I can place my food scraps and coffee grounds there and have something with which to transport them to Mom and Ellis.
While searching for videos I cam across one produced by a middle school somewhere in the US. This school had separate, student-decorated bins int he cafeteria to collect all of the waste. They had two separate bins for composting, one with worms for dairy and meat products and one without worms for all the other edible scraps. They also had a recycling bin and trash can. Beyond that, the school also had two large compost bins outside to hold the schools leftovers. The students then demonstrated the completion of the cycle where they took some of their own compost to serve as fertilizer for the greenery areas of their school. After I watched this video, I became aware again of just how much food is thrown away even when I collect the uneaten fruit and unopened milks. My dream would be to be able to start such a program at my school. I believe that this could be invaluable for these students. Such a process could help teach them to be better stewards of the resources that they have which could potentially help, among other factors, break the cycle of poverty.
Right now, the political climate at the school, district, and county level is not amenable to the changes that would be required to implement such a system. In the face of such overwhelming odds, what can be done?
It starts with me. If I compared the amount of food I am keeping from the landfill to the total disposed of each year in my state, the depressing odds would quickly disillusion. If I instead celebrate each success no matter how small, the motivation will become infectious. One person cannot change the world and would be foolish to try to do so. Thus, going forward, I will take the small steps that I can like minimizing my own food waste by judicial purchases and composting the leftovers. I will also do what I can at school like collecting and redistributing the extra fruit while explaining the reasons to any who ask.