Composting is Awesome!

Easy lessons in making compost from urban food waste

By Nancy Matsumoto


Some students have brought their zeal for composting into their homes, too. Chloe’s family keeps a worm bin in their apartment, and they have donated lots of food scraps to the CSS compost project. “I freeze it, which kills off all the fruit fly eggs,” says Chloe’s mom, Carrie Worthington. “Chloe taught me that.” Working with worm bins has its ups and downs. There was the time the class added too much water to the bins, causing the waterlogged worms to escape. In another incident, which 8th-grader Ashley calls “the great radiator wipeout of 2011,” a janitor placed a worm bin on the radiator overnight. “When we came back, our worms were fried,” recalls Ashley.

Back at the workshop, a kid teaching team introduces the galvanized metal trash bins for maturing compost and demonstrates the hand turners used to aerate and mix the compost. Once finished, the rich black gold the class has made is used to fertilize the raised beds of their garden. Having read as a class assignment the young readers edition of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 6th-grader Niagale knows that their lovingly tended mix is “a lot healthier than store-bought” chemical fertilizers, or those used on large-scale commercial farms, which she calls “disturbing.”

Nearby, another team shows off its chicken-wire-fenced leaf bin used to store brown matter, always in short supply. Last year, to remedy the too-wet mix that can result from a lack of browns, Hill arranged to get fall leaves from nearby Morningside Park on a raking day. The students also demonstrate the use of a fine mesh strainer the exact size of the raised beds to separate overly large bits of organic matter. Workshop participants take turns sifting, to cries of  “good compost!” from team leaders.

The garden and compost project has been a collaborative effort; in addition to many of Hill’s past and current 6th-graders, a sustainably focused school “Green Team” and a number of community volunteers participate in open gardening hours held Friday afternoons during the growing season. Students and teachers from CSS’s engineering program built raised beds and hoops for the garden, too.

After the workshop, students romp through the garden, tearing off leaves of kale and mint for guests to taste. It’s a sight to gladden the heart of any urban parent whose child is more likely to dial for pizza delivery than reach for the vegetable bin. “I make ‘tacos,’” says 6th-grader Griffin, demonstrating how he wraps a large kale leaf around several leaves of chocolate mint. In their school Garden to Café program, the young gardeners have chopped herbs and veggies to sprinkle on top of cafeteria pizza, roasted kale chips, and brewed their own mint hot chocolate. “We have infinite amounts of mint,” confides Griffin.

Every year, Hill’s experiment in sustainable gardening has grown. To cut down on the huge amount of food waste at CSS, Hill and her students researched and wrote a grant proposal to the Citizens Committee of New York City, Manhattan Solid Waste Advisory Board, and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, netting $450 from the city to purchase a 14.7-cubic-foot freezer in which to store food scraps in the classroom until they have a chance to haul them to their garden, a 20-minute walk from school. “We were the group of middle-schoolers walking down the street with a big wheelbarrow and a freezerful of frozen food scraps,” says Maya. To which Hill adds, “It’s way cooler than it sounds.”

This year at CSS, to expand collection of food scraps at lunchtime, the class marked trash bins in the cafeteria with signs reading “Compost,” “Recycling,” and “Trash.” It was a challenge getting students to comply with the separation rules, though, even with student monitors posted by the bins to keep order, says Chloe: “Kids needed a lot of reminding about foam trays, and what stuff was not compostable.”

Laura Norwitz says that through Hill’s gardening elective and her reading of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, her daughter Ellie is “more aware of the social and political issues of large-scale farming and the food industry.” Ellie has educated the family, too. “For years, we were getting the cheapest version of eggs labeled ‘cage-free,’” says Norwitz, “but Ellie told us, ‘cage-free doesn’t mean the chickens were well raised.’” The family has started buying eggs at the farmers’ market. Another parent, Hiroko Suzuki, says of her son, Ami, “On his first day of gardening, he ate five kinds of vegetables! He doesn’t want to buy regular vegetables; he wants to buy organic.”

It’s clear that these young people’s passion for sustainability, gardening, and composting is due to Hill, who has given students “the opportunity to learn about the impact their lives have on the environment, and what they can do about it.” They know, she says, that “‘Going green’ is about being agents of change.”

Watch a video of the Columbia Secondary School garden and composting project!