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Cody Peterson and Kayla Morse, members of the YES team at ACGC, stand by the large compost bin the YES team is making to compost leftovers from the school lunch. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

ACGC program recycles leftovers to create more food

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ACGC program recycles leftovers to create more food
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

GROVE CITY -- While most schools concentrate on feeding students' brains, a central Minnesota school also plans to use school lunch leftovers to feed the soil to grow food -- which will in turn feed students at a future school lunch.


And in the process, students will learn about the importance of recycling, composting, growing gardens and eating well.

"The goal is to reduce the amount of waste we're putting out," said Tami Bennett-Tait, science instructor at the Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City High School and coordinator for the school's Youth Energy Summit team. The team developed a multi-level plan that helped earn the school a regional grand prize for the second year in a row.

"The kids have made it successful," Bennett-Tait said.

Last summer students planted a vegetable garden that was nearly the size of a football field. From that, about 2,500 pounds of produce was harvested that was used in the hot lunch program in the district's three school buildings.

During this school year, students were given the opportunity to sort their noontime garbage, with fruit and vegetable scraps and paper napkins going into the compost can.

One of the last steps in the process -- developing an enclosed composting bin that can be mechanically mixed -- is nearly completed and is expected to be operational during the next school year.

Rich compost that is created in the process will be put back into the garden as a soil amendment that will nourish a future crop of school vegetables and reduce the school's daily garbage output by about 100 pounds.

The composting plan was spearheaded by ACGC seniors Kayla Morse and Cody Peterson, who are member of the YES team.

Morse, who "didn't see the importance and didn't care" about reducing the school's carbon footprint before she became involved with the YES team, has now become a strong advocate for the mantra of reduce, reuse, recycle.

Composting leftover food to nourish the garden soil just made sense, she said.

The students explored different options, including piling food scraps in a heap and manually aerating it. But concern about an unsightly pile near the school's athletic fields had them looking for other methods.

There are manufactured systems that are marketed to schools, but they cost around $10,000. The students are in the process of building a homemade version instead.

They are using a very large plastic container the school custodians found in storage, an auger mounted on a frame and some ingenuity.

Peterson, who's in charge of figuring out how to make the system work, said he's "learned a lot of patience" in the process.

If the project isn't completed before the end of the school year, next year's YES team will have to finish it up, said Bennett-Tait.

The rest of the student body is also going to have to step up their garbage-sorting efforts, she said.

This year was used as a training period to get students used to the idea of stopping at a couple different bins on their way out of the lunch room to separate their waste. Not everyone participated, said Bennett-Tait, who hopes more supervision in the garbage line next year will increase awareness and the amount of items that can be composted.

While the YES team is winning awards, and prize money that helps fund additional projects, some of their work to save the school energy and money is being done without great fanfare.

For example, they helped install LED lights in 96 exit signs in the school buildings. The public can't see a difference, but it's estimated the district will save $1,500 a year in reduced electrical fees. They also purchased "smart strips" for the office to reduce "phantom power" usage that saved $500 in one year.

More prize money or grants would help them implement additional projects that are on the list.

"We've done well for the school," said Bennett-Tait. "Hopefully we can continue."

Some of their projects have been more public, including giving away 400 compact fluorescent light bulbs during parent-teacher conferences and conducting environmental fairs for elementary students.

Earlier this month they collected a couple hundred pounds of old sneakers for a recycling competition that had a $20,000 prize award. Good shoes were being sent to Africa and the rest will be ground up and used to make new products. Even if they don't win the contest, the project meant fewer shoes would be sent to the landfill.


Carolyn Lange
A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers county government and regional news with the West Central Tribune.
(320) 894-9750