Most of our Dining Hall guests participate in separating trash from compostable food scraps. We drop the grape stems, apple cores, and orange and banana peels into a bucket, and maybe even help mash it up, but never see this food goop again. This composting process, however, is one that is both impactful to Eagle Bluff and involves most of our staff. Sara Sturgis and Gretchen Engstrom, our compost experts, informed the following tips.
While there are plenty of other reasons to compost, Eagle Bluff specifically focuses on three:
- Minimize Food Scraps – Because Eagle Bluff offers food services as part of other programming, we want our food to be quality, yet it simply isn’t the focus of our budget. Since we began composting, we’ve also been measuring food scraps. This allows the kitchen to better calculate how much food to buy and prepare, so we don’t end up with as many unusable leftovers. Further, less food gets thrown away. Since we began composting, Eagle Bluff has 50% less waste in our dumpsters each week.
- Environmentally Friendly – Composting is part of our environmental ethic and enables us, as a business, to have healthier contributions to our natural world.
- Education – As a school and organization, we are often either teaching or leading by example. Composting is a relatively easy and beneficial way to be environmentally friendly while maintaining our organization. Of course we should teach this practice as well!
We practice two types of composting at Eagle Bluff. The first is our public standard: Post-Consumer Compost. The second type, perhaps lesser-known, is our kitchen’s Verma Compost, also known as our Worm Bin.
- Collect scraps from meals of plant matter, such as peels from bananas and oranges, grape stems, apple cores, etc. Gather these scraps in a bucket and mash them up with a shovel until they are a consistent texture.
- Deliver scraps to our tumblers. Add twice the amount of sawdust as there were scraps. Mix recently added scraps and sawdust with existing materials in tumbler. Roll tumbler one complete turn. Add scraps to tumbler (over course of weeks) until it is full.
- Drop tumbler scraps into bin and deliver to our garden bins. These bins are filled with matter that is more broken down and may heat up from the sun. They host the material until it is more completely broken down.
- Finally, add material from composting to garden soil.
- Manure may be added to garden in addition to compost.
- Fill worm large bin with Red Wiggler worms and shredded newspaper.
- Add vegetable scraps from kitchen prep into worm bin. Only add vegetables that are not changed, such as by being cooked, salted, pickled, breaded, spiced, buttered, etc. Fresh salad or fruits work well.
- Worms excretions work well for seed germination each spring.
While we’ve been composting food during the existence of most of our school program, our composting system became much more organized after we received a grant for our FoodWise program in 2006. However, there were misadventures at the beginning of this process due to us not getting the composting ratios right.
What makes food scraps into a good composting soil?
We use a 2:1 ratio. For every pound of nitrogen (wet, fresh food scraps) component in our composting mixture, we add two pounds of a carbon-based (dry) mixture. We currently use sawdust as our carbon-based, dry mixture. Dry leaves or other paper scraps could work as well. We used to use paper napkins as the carbon-based component; however, we found that the napkins didn’t break down at a rate fast enough for us to maintain the composting program. The paper was too gummy and, instead of decomposing, would wrap itself around the food, trapping the contents inside until they smelled horrible. We called these scrap-wraps “poop balls” due to their color, shape, and smell. Now, we find that sawdust is convenient for us and works considerably better.
You can compost, too!
As we were committed to involving many staff members into this process, we needed to make it easy and comfortable for us to do while still getting our desired dirt. Originally, we scooped vegetable matter out of the tumblers and into a bucket before delivering the compost to the garden bins. This meant often getting half-decomposed vegetables on our hands, arms, and shoes. A disgusting job doesn’t often lend itself well to being maintained well. For this reason we now have tumblers that use hatches to open, so we can pour the half-decomposed vegetable manner into the bucket without getting any of the matter on ourselves.
As you start your composting journey, decide what things might prevent you from maintaining a habit of composting. Pain points might include:
- The tumbler being too far from the house/apartment
- The composting station being too ugly
- The compost being too stinky and attracting flies
- The wet nitrogen-rich compost matter needing to be mixed with dry carbon-based matter
After determining what might dissuade you, come up with a plan to avoid these matters:
- Keep the tumbler close to the back door
- Paint the composting station black and let plants grow over it or let the kids paint it with bright colors and designs
- Before brining compost outside, store it in a Tupperware in the fridge. This will keep the compost fresher longer and fruit flies will not be able to reach it
- Decide to not care about the soil quality which the compost creates
Finally, pick your goal or strategy for creating compost. For example,
If the goal is to prevent garbage, just pile the food scraps in a bin which is connected to the ground. Occasionally add grass clippings as the carbon. Let the slowly decomposing nutrients filter themselves into the surrounding ground. Occasionally, move or lower the pile to allow this process to continue.
If the goal is to create quality garden soil, your work may need to be more particular. Keep track of the nitrogen to carbon ratio in order to create a nutrient-dense soil.