“It doesn’t have to smell, it doesn’t have to draw flies, and it doesn’t have to draw rodents.” Food waste, according to Glenn Gilbert, director of facilities, doesn’t have to be gross.
Gilbert’s face lights up and he speaks freely; he is obviously very passionate about composting.
Composting is often seen as a silver-bullet environmental solution; it is thought of as something that greatly reduces someone’s environmental footprint. However, composting on campus is largely necessary due to the large amount of uneaten food in the dining hall and in residence halls.
By the time your uneaten food reaches the compost, it has already been wasted, thrown away instead of being given to those who don’t have enough. Food waste is a pervasive issue not just on our campus, but in our entire society. According to Feed The Children, 30-40% of all food produced in the United States is wasted, while one in six children live in food insecure homes.
In an ideal world, all the food that is prepared or purchased would be consumed, but until then, campus composting can make a big difference.
The system we currently use to handle food waste was born in 2011, after David Zwier, class of 2012, advocated for on-campus composting at the annual C. Henry Smith Peace Oratorical Contest. Professional food waste consultant Lew Naylor, a Goshen resident, worked with student leaders to develop a simple yet effective composting method.
“What we are doing is not glamorous, but it is significant,” Gilbert said.
The staff at the dining hall work hard to make sure they are not overproducing food, and any and all leftovers are composted in the warmer months.
When talking about how they reduce waste, Jeremy Corson, resident director of AVI Fresh, said that “we batch cook from production history and have little waste. Production records keep us from over-preparing, and each food station reports it’s daily batch cooked amounts.”
Post-consumption composting all starts when a student makes the decision to compost their food waste and napkins instead of sending it to the landfill. There isn’t much served at Westlawn Dining Hall that isn’t compostable, which Gilbert attributes to Corson, who has worked diligently to eliminate small plastic containers, such as individual coffee creamers or butter pads.
“It’s rare for an institution to not have little plastic containers,” Gilbert said. “It is highly commendable, thanks to Chef Jeremy.”
After the compost in the dining hall is filled, it is the responsibility of student leaders to take it outside, dump it into the larger compost crate, add the appropriate amount of wood chips and mix it thoroughly.
Once the large compost crate outside of the dinning hall is filled up, Gilbert uses a forklift to transport it to the physical plant and trades it out for an empty crate.
In the summer, he and a student intern take all the compost that has accumulated throughout the year and run it through a giant spinning sieve, which separates the wood chips from the compost. Then the compost is shoveled and used to fertilize the Trackside garden. Decompose, fertilize, repeat.
When there is strong student leadership and enthusiasm about composting, the system is highly functional, but everything can unravel if there isn’t what Gilbert calls a “super diligent champion,” who holds it all together.
When asked why the compost has been closed for almost two weeks, Gilbert pointed to the lack of student leadership this semester. He acknowledged that the current system is always vulnerable.
“With students coming and going we have good years and not so good years,” he said.
Gilbert also noted that in the winter months, the woodchips tend to freeze, and this makes it difficult to properly mix the wood chips with the food waste. Sometimes, they need to close the compost in the winter just because it is too cold.
While composting has many benefits, none of them are economic. The physical plant is already short staffed and simply can’t afford having someone working full time to maintain compost. Because of this, and because Gilbert believes student initiative and learning is important, it has remained a student responsibility since the beginning.
Food waste is a problem in student housing as well, especially in the intentional living communities.
“I would say…communal food does get forgotten about, frequently,” said Erin Graber, a junior living at East Hall. She said that leafy greens were the number one culprit, as they go bad easily.
For the students living at Howell house, most of their food waste is from cooking, items such as egg shells or broccoli stems.
“It’s really nice having tons of tupperware and lots of mouths around that are hungry,” said senior Luke Rush.
Students at Howell take their compost to Trackside garden, wrapped in newspaper.
Across the street, Kenwood residents just started composting this semester, after simply throwing away their food into the landfill before. They still haven’t perfected the system, but currently they are “just keeping their food waste in a five gallon bucket on the porch,” according to Harrison Gingerich, a junior.
Rush commented that if the college provided the ILCs with another fridge and a personal composter, the system would be easier. Crowded fridges often lead to fermented treasures discovered weeks later.
Composting is a process that doesn’t happen overnight, and Gilbert wants students to be aware of that and take initiative.
“It may die tomorrow,” he said, “because it does really depend on students.”