A chart on the wall of the Gunnison Community School (GCS) cafeteria says it all.
Of the 79.5 pounds of food waste generated during lunch on Monday, 33.5 pounds could be composted, with 30 pounds bound for the landfill and another 16 pounds in liquid waste.
For the days that follow, a similar chart will show students exactly how much of the food they otherwise would toss in the trash is compostable — capable of being used to fertilize plants or feed livestock.
Mountain Roots Food Project and the Gunnison Watershed RE1J School District are partnering this week on a foodwaste audit at GCS. The audit serves as a tool to teach kids the importance of composting while at the same time providing data in hopes of helping the school reduce food waste in the future.
AmeriCorps service member Megan Burney is spearheading the project on behalf of Mountain Roots.
Burney noted that a similar audit was conducted by Mountain Roots in Crested Butte in 2012. As part of the project at GCS, Burney and her team are collecting and weighing liquid waste, such as milk or other drinks; compostable food scraps, comprised largely of fruits and vegetables; and remaining materials directed to the landfill, including meat and dairy products.
“We’re also seeing what food isn’t being eaten,” Burney added.
That’s of particular benefit to the GCS kitchen staff in meal planning.
“It’s recommended for schools to do,” said RE1J School Nutrition Director Kristen Osborn of such food-waste audits. “It’s a good idea for letting students know about food waste and can provide some data for the schools as well.”
As part of her service to Mountain Roots, Burney was given an opportunity to choose a project.
“I’ve always kind of been interested in waste, and not just food waste but recyclables,” she said.
Burney’s supervisor with Mountain Roots, Sasha Legere, suggested a composting initiative. Burney loved the idea and thought it would be worthwhile to develop a five-year plan to help a local school initiate a composting program for its cafeteria.
The project started with the collection of “pre-consumer” food waste — such as potato peels — from GCS’ cafeteria which was then used as compost in the community garden managed by Mountain Roots on the school’s north side.
Yet, the audit is a crucial component of the five-year plan Burney is in the midst of developing.
“There are complexities to introducing composting at a school,” she recognized.
For instance, how compost will be collected, who will deliver it and where it ultimately will be utilized.
“What would be awesome is having the students do it,” she said. “Because, for one, it creates that education piece but also leads to healthier habits for their future.”
Additionally, the audit gets students in the habit of sorting food waste from refuse headed to the landfill — and thinking about what happens to food and packaging that isn’t consumed.
On Tuesday, Brett McIlmail, a Western Colorado University student and member of the Organics Guild, volunteered his time in helping conduct the audit — guiding students in sorting their food waste from other refuse.
“Most of them seem to be picking it up fairly quickly,” he said.
Many students were equally quick to see the benefit.
“I think it’s good because it helps our earth and doesn’t pollute it as much,” said first grader Russell Meeuwsen.
Yet, for some students, composting is nothing new. Fifth grader Ella Mae Forrest’s family already composts, using the material to fertilize their garden or giving it to her grandparents for theirs.
“I think it’s really good for the environment, and we don’t have to buy (nutrients) for the soil,” she said, adding that the audit has helped underscore that point for all students. “I learned that it’s really important to help deal with the waste because otherwise we’re just wasting a bunch of natural resources. I think it’s really cool that these people are trying so hard to help our area.”
Food waste collected during the audit will be utilized by local producer Calder Farm to feed the operation’s hogs.
While Burney’s tenure of service to Mountain Roots ends next month, she hopes the project lays a foundation for composting at multiple school sites in the future.
“The long-term goal is for the entire district to compost all school food waste,” she said. “But that is way down the road.”
(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)