By Nicholas Waters
Biology teacher, Canyon Ridge High School, Twin Falls, Idaho.
I wear many hats: I'm a husband, father, 10th grade biology teacher, Knowles Science Teaching Foundation (KSTF) fellow, soil scientist, foodie, and a small-scale organic vegetable farmer. On any given day, my mind is trying to make sense of hundreds of seemingly disparate problems, questions and conversations related to food sustainability. Lately, foremost among them are school lunches and vermicomposting.
On most days in our school's cafeteria, plate after plate is dumped into the trash. These plates
hold various, half-eaten vittles: lettuce, bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, apples, etc. Few of us realize that these vittles contain small amounts of an extremely valuable plant nutrient -- phosphorus.
Phosphorous is used extensively in agricultural production to boost crop yields, but world phosphorous reserves are dwindling. The phosphorous problem worsens because we waste vast quantities of this precious resource by over applying fertilizer to our fields and concentrating huge numbers of livestock in very small areas. In Southern Idaho, where I live, phosphorous from cow dung and excess chemical fertilizer ends up finding its way into the Snake River, where it stimulates unnatural levels of algal growth, which in turn leads to eutrophication and an unhealthy river system. Our schools contribute to this unsustainable system as they throw away phosphorous-containing food waste every day.
One solution is vermicomposting -- a process that uses worms to turn food waste into fantastically amazing compost. My students often remark on a 'weird' smell that comes from our vermicomposting bin in the classroom. A slightly "earthy" smell is produced as the worms break down fruits, vegetables, and starches into fertilizer that contains readily available phosphorous. While we often think of worms as 'lowly' (as anyone who has read Richard Scary's tales to young children can attest), worms are truly amazing. In fact, they can be used to efficiently compost various food wastes and recycle valuable phosphorous.
If schools were to think about instituting composting -- or vermicomposting -- programs, much could be done to recycle this vital resource and make our school lunches more sustainable so that we can continue providing our students with the nutrition they need to grow and learn.
Vermicomposting is easy to do in a school or your own kitchen. Here are a few tips to get you started:
1. Construct (or buy) a vermicomposting bin. This will be the facility that houses your worms so that they can work their magic. Click here for a nice online tutorial on how to make your own bin. To buy a bin, search online for "vermicomposting bins."
2. Gather together some bedding material for your worms -- worms need a nice place to hide and bury the food wastes that you give them. Shredded newspaper or shredded leaves will work great. Just make sure that the bedding material is always moist.
3. Get some worms! And yes, they are special worms. You will need the kind of worm that normally lives in the leaf litter layers on forest floors -- Eisenia fetida -- which is commonly known as the "Red Wiggler." A brief excursion into your local deciduous forest will provide you with the worms you are looking for. Also, a quick Google search will yield plenty of options for purchasing these composting beauties.
4. Generate food waste -- (worms especially like vegetables, fruits, coffee grounds and will deal with grains. Don't give worms meat or dairy).