Island Grown Schools initiates composting program at high school

Supporters said it’s a first step in what could eventually be an Island-wide municipal composting program.

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Island Grown School's high school coordinator Kelsey Head and Garden Club member Lena Hanschka nailed wire to the new compost bin Monday afternoon. – Photo by Cathryn McCann

Starting in mid-April, trash at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) will serve a new purpose. Through a new composting initiative kick-started by Island Grown Schools and about 10 students in the high school Garden Club, food scraps from the cafeteria will be made into nutrient-rich soil for the school’s own garden.

The conversation started in early September when Island Grown Schools (IGS) program leader Noli Taylor, IGS high school coordinator Kelsey Head, and MVRHS career technical education (CTE) director Barbara-Jean Chauvin started talking about food waste at the high school, which accounts for about three five-gallon bins per day.

“The school pays to have that waste removed from the property, and then trash on Martha’s Vineyard is eventually brought by freight to an incinerator,” Ms. Head said during a Garden Club meeting Monday afternoon. “There’s an economic stress there, and there’s always a need in the garden for more nutrient-rich soil.”

Composting is defined by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) as a process that turns organic material, such as food, leaf, and yard waste, into soil enrichment. This year, the Garden Club partnered with the high school culinary arts program to implement a closed-loop composting system. The culinary arts program provides food scraps to the Garden Club, which then composts the food scraps and uses the soil to grow vegetables. Those vegetables are provided to the culinary arts program for cooking. That successful system inspired Ms. Head to initiate a school-wide program.

“Food never has to leave the school; we don’t have to go buying compost, and the school can hopefully save money by turning its food scraps into soil,” Ms. Head said. “The ecological benefits are that we’re cutting down a huge percentage of waste, so we’re not shipping as much waste off, and we’re really supporting local, organic vegetable growing.”

The concept will be the same as the composting program currently run between culinary arts and the Garden Club, except on a larger, school-wide spectrum. On Monday, several Garden Club members were making big banners to hang in the school cafeteria that said: “Compost,” “Trash,” and “Recycling.” Each banner will point to a specific trash bin, so students know where to deposit their lunch trash.

That food will eventually be transferred to a compost bin set up in the second courtyard at the high school, where it will be used for soil in the garden.

“We’re hoping what will interest people further beyond just helping with a great school, community-based program is the potential for student research projects,” Ms. Head said. “There’s so much life in compost bins that can be researched, and there’s so much chemical interaction.”

Compost competition

Starting in April, Ms. Head and the Garden Club will kick off the composting program with a presentation at a school-wide assembly, instructing all the students about how to utilize the new composting system.

Next year, the hope is to hold something like a “Slash the Trash” competition, wherein each homeroom will be in charge of the composting operation for one week. They will collect the trash bins, weigh them, and then deliver them to the composting bins. An ongoing, constantly updated form will be displayed in the lunchroom showing each homeroom’s cumulative food-scrap collection weight.

“Each semester the winner for the most food scraps, the most compost, will be awarded with lunch made by culinary arts with as much produce from the school garden as we can donate,” Ms. Head said.

She said her biggest fear is that the composting program will be short-lived. Her hope is that the competition will build excitement and pride among the students and teachers for the sustainable, green initiative.

“Hopefully we’ll also get some concrete numbers that will show us that this has real legitimacy for the school’s budget, too,” she said.

She said she believes the students can keep the momentum up as well.

“It’s really inspiring to see all the students involved, and know that they have great potential to make this program really work,” she said.

Student involvement

Already, however, a number of students have contributed to the effort. In January, Ms. Head joined building trades teacher Bill Seabourne’s class to visit Tom Turner’s wood mill in Katama. IGS subsequently purchased local and processed lumber from Mr. Turner to utilize in the construction of the four-bay compost bin. Students in Mr. Seabourne’s class completed construction of the bin a month later.

On Monday, students from the Garden Club endured the rain and were inside the compost bin, nailing wire netting to the inside of the wood, which will keep any unwanted critters from getting into the food scraps.

Student Marissa D’Antonio said club members are usually outside during their meetings, working in the composting bin or in the gardens.

“We’ve planted seedlings in the greenhouses, and we planted garlic earlier this year, and once it gets nicer we’ll plant the seedlings that we had planted in the greenhouse,” she said.

Around the courtyard, there are multiple gardens, with things such as fruit trees, olives, asparagus, and grapevines.

Inside, high school CTE health assisting teacher Mary Vivian and school psychologist Lorraine Wells, both Garden Club advisors, were supervising students making the posters for the cafeteria.

“I’m crazy about this,” Ms. Vivian said. “I just believe in how happy it makes everybody.”

She said the club, which operates all year, has planted herbs, worked in the school greenhouses, dried out the herbs for seasoning, and made bath salts with sage and Epsom salts. She said the composting program is a natural evolution for the school.

Island-wide composting

Monday, Ms. Head said the high school composting program is just one of a number of similar initiatives around the Island. At the Charter School, food scraps are collected and fed to farm pigs. The elementary schools are looking into “waste-free weeks” or “wasteless Wednesdays,” and amping up their recycling awareness.

Sophie Abrams of West Tisbury was recently hired to lead a study on Martha’s Vineyard that will look into the issue of food waste on the Island and potential solutions. Currently, neither the Oak Bluffs-Tisbury district or the Martha’s Vineyard Refuse District have composting facilities at their transfer stations.

According to the United Nations Environmental Program, about $161 billion worth of edible food goes to waste each year. The MassDEP estimates that food waste accounts for more than 25 percent of the waste stream in Massachusetts after recycling, or over 1 million tons per year, and less than 10 percent of that is being diverted from the garbage stream. The MassDEP is looking to reduce total solid waste disposal by 30 percent and divert at least 35 percent of compostable waste from disposal by 2020.

Initiatives like the one at MVRHS will play a role in that goal, and an Island-wide composting program would play an even larger role.

“I’m 100 percent for it, and I really hope it happens,” Ms. Head said Monday. “There’s just a lot of momentum for composting on the Island right now.”