IOWA CITY — When students at the Regina Catholic Education Center finish the school year May 31, they will have composted more than 11,000 pounds of food waste from their cafeteria since August.
That waste once went to the landfill, where it took up space and generated methane, a potent greenhouse gas. But since August 2011, Regina has been turning food scraps into compost, a valuable soil enhancement for gardeners and home developers.
“I think it’s kind of cool for the environment,” said Regina first-grader Lydia Pritchard, 7, of Iowa City. “People get used to doing (composting), and then they start it at home.”
Regina is among a handful of local K-12 schools joining colleges and businesses looking for ways to reduce food waste. The school of 950 students pays for its composting and recycling program with lower trash hauling fees — a critical factor for other schools considering similar programs.
Recent waste audits of three Cedar Rapids-area schools showed more than 65 percent of cafeteria trash was food. Eighth-graders at Excelsior Middle School in Marion helped Green Iowa AmeriCorps sort the lunch trash Jan. 25.
“Once they got over the initial grossness of sorting through other people’s food, their biggest reaction is how much food is wasted,” said Todd Lane, an eighth-grade science teacher at Excelsior.
Excelsior students collect chip bags and drink pouches for recycling. A parent also picks up leftover food that hasn’t been served to students and feeds it to his hogs, Lane said. But launching compost programs can be challenging because of the startup costs and lack of hauling options in some communities.
The Cedar Rapids/Linn County Solid Waste Agency is discussing a pilot project with the Cedar Rapids School District that would include 16 weeks of free hauling of food scraps for one school, agency spokesman Joe Horaney said.
“It’s an opportunity to educate and divert,” he said.
Forty percent of food in the United States goes uneaten, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Food makes up about 15 percent of Iowa landfill waste, or about 19,000 tons a year, according a 2011 state waste characterization study. The Iowa City Landfill has composted more than 300 tons of food since 2007 and wants to expand its program.
Cedar Rapids is one of the only communities in the state to do curbside compost pick up. Residents may put food scraps in their green Yardy Carts along with yard waste, Horaney said.
School administrators trying to stretch budgets to pay for teachers, facilities, technology and other needs often don’t want to spend money on composting, Lane said.
Regina got a $1,460 Solid Waste Alternatives Program grant from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to pay for startup costs, including large bins, signs and biodegradable bags.
The school spent $6,420 a year on trash pickups before the program, said Missy Aitchison, a parent who started the recycling and composting program in 2011. Composting has cut the number of trash pickups required so the cost of trash and compost hauling is now $6,515 a year — just $8 a month more than the previous costs, she said.
New federal guidelines requiring students to take at least one fruit or vegetable for school lunch are generating more waste, teachers and parents at several schools said. It’s common to see whole apples or bananas in garbage bins at Excelsior, Lane said.
“They want the option to take just what they want to eat,” Lane said of his students.
The guidelines, which also add more whole grains and reduce sodium, are intended to improve children’s health. Ann Feilmann, the state Department of Education’s Nutrition and Health Services bureau chief, said there has always been waste with school lunch programs because short lunch periods and chatting don’t always allow kids to eat all their food.
Regina has a basket where students can put uneaten food, such as whole fruit or sealed bags of carrots. The food is donated to Table to Table, an Iowa City-based non-profit that picks up surplus food from schools, grocery stores and restaurants and takes it to area shelters and food banks.
Parent volunteers help Regina kindergartners and first-graders sort their plastics, paper and food after a recent lunch period. Leftover milk goes into a five-gallon bucket, plastics are pulled and leftover chicken potpie, green beans and fruit are dumped in a large bin with a biodegradable bag.
“It helps the earth a lot because if you throw away everything, it would take up too much space,” said Morgan Squiers, 7, of North Liberty.
New online resource
Iowa restaurants, schools and hospitals have a new online resource for finding ways to recycle food waste.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the Iowa Waste Reduction Center at the University of Northern Iowa have launched a website with information on food waste haulers, sites that accept surplus food and case studies of other groups that are reducing or composting food waste.
The website, www.foodwaste.iwrc.org, will eventually include the capability for entering zip codes to find nearby sites for taking food waste.
The site is part of a $162,000 year-long campaign that will include regional food waste workshops in the fall, said Dan Nickey, senior program manager.
Hy-Vee plans composting project
Iowa City and Cedar Rapids Hy-Vee stores will start composting food waste, produce and floral trimmings through a pilot project.
Green RU, a Des Moines-based organics recycler, will pick up the waste from Hy-Vee stores and haul it to compost facilities in Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and Eddyville, said Demetrios Hadjis, regional sales and marketing director for Green RU.
Hy-Vee officials would like to see how the pilot works before deciding whether to expand composting to more of its 230 stores in eight Midwestern states, Hy-Vee Spokeswoman Ruth Comer said.
“We have high hopes for the program,” she said.
The program will not replace Hy-Vee’s donations of edible food to shelters, food banks and food rescues like Table to Table, Comer said. The compost project will focus on food that is past expiration or plants that are not edible, such as floral trimmings.
Other stores, including Walmart and Sam’s Club, have been composting food waste for several years.