Search form

Reduce Waste, Recycle, and Teach Green Habits in
One Fell Scoop


Spend a little time in your school's cafeteria, and you may be startled by the amount of food that students are not eating. Rejected scraps are not only wasteful but make for very full garbage cans, and much of that material can be put to good use. Composting is a fruitful endeavor that pays for itself in reduced disposal costs and a powerful, plant-friendly product. Can it take root in your school? Included: Schools from Maryland to Colorado to Oregon share how composting works for them.

It all started in the cafeteria On lunch duty, New Market (Maryland) Elementary media specialist Carol Beall was shocked by the amount of food that was thrown away by students every day, and she was only present during the kindergarteners half-hour lunch period.

"I knew if kindergarten threw out that much food, the school was generating a lot of garbage," recalled Beall.


Then she received an email message from the county about annual grant opportunities. A big recycler and composter herself, Beall applied for a Gladhill Agricultural Foundation Grant in the amount of $660. With that money, the school purchased a twin compost tumbler, tools, and buckets to gather the compost in the cafeteria. All students, from kindergarten through fifth grade, began to recycle their food garbage on a daily basis. Fifth graders became the official helpers who assisted custodians in delivering the garbage to the tumbler.

The composting program at Maryland's
New Market Elementary
gave rise to a gardening project
and other green activities.
(photo courtesy of Carol Beall)

The project received much attention. Two local television stations came out to cover the story, and numerous newspaper articles were written about the students' composting efforts. A county commissioner came to visit to see if the program might be replicated in other schools.

"There have also been many unexpected benefits to the composting program," Beall reported. "A group of students in fifth grade decided to organize a green team to clean up the schoolyard. Other grades became involved and decided to use the compost to create a vegetable garden. Wal-mart donated garden tools, gloves, and seeds. Later that year, I was invited to set up a booth on recycling at Frederick County's Waste Not Expo, and we were even invited to post our project on the Kids are Heroes Web site."

Part of the program's success is attributed to the composting committee that sets goals and outcomes for the project. The group includes the principal, custodians, and a teacher from each grade level. It is important to understand composting and know the materials that are needed right from the start, Beall advises. Students must be educated well in advance and encouraged to support the program. At New Market Elementary, teachers were given guidelines that correlated the composting activity with their science curriculum. The community was also educated and invited to help through a survey, newsletters, and the school Web site.

"This was such a great experience," Beall stated. "I see it has something that will continue at New Market. I am only sorry that this has not expanded to other schools in the way I had hoped."


In Keene Valley, New York, the school board sought ways to save money on tipping fees charged at the local landfill. One school board member wanted to get a pig! Bunny Goodwin had been composting at home for years and knew of a Massachusetts school that was doing it, so she went to a meeting and proposed the idea to school officials.

Join the Heap

Is your school really ready to start a compost program? Bunny Goodwin helped to establish a program at Keene Central School in New York and coordinates efforts to keep it alive and thriving. She suggests that if you are not already recycling cans, bottles, and paper, this is a great place to start.

"Find someone on staff who composts or find an energetic, totally devoted community member who successfully composts at home to help get it going," Goodwin advised.

Is the school community willing to support a composting program? Do you have access to woodchips? Do you have the space for a bin? These are additional questions that should be addressed before composting begins.

"Have you considered worm composting in the classroom?" asks Goodwin. "It may be easier to start a garden at school, and a community garden is an even easier sell. Then once that gets going, start a compost program."

Goodwin notes that while grants are available for composting efforts, her program received no funds of this kind until it was underway and had proven to be a success.

Today Keene Central School composts food scraps during approximately the first and last eight weeks of the school year, depending upon weather conditions. Congresswoman Betty Little funded the purchase of a bucket for the school tractor that is used to turn and move the compost. The town delivers woodchips to the compost site before school starts each year.

"During the first year, the music teacher told me that when she took students to other schools for events, they couldn't understand why other schools didn't compost," Goodwin shared. "They thought this was just the way of all schools and that every school composted."

The school has faced many varied challenges in executing the composting program. Early on, Goodwin's children were in school and their bus driver took the compostables to the compost pile. Daily communication was as simple as checking in with him in the morning when he picked up the children. Over time, Goodwin put together a compost notebook, and one student is charged with monitoring the pile and emailing Goodwin weekly to let her know what temperatures have been recorded, when a bin is full, and if problems occur. There is usually an adult contact who helps to manage the pile and works with Goodwin to resolve any issues. This year the school's new biology teacher is involved.

Management of volunteers can also present problems. When the lunch schedule changed so that seniors no longer have the last period, it became more difficult for them to find the time to remove the compostable materials. Goodwin never wants the job to be assigned to students who are in detention, but rather as a community service effort. One student volunteer had learned about compost during a summer camp. Members of the National Honor Society have also volunteered.

"In the beginning, there was more work to promote ownership, interest, and publicity," Goodwin told Education World. "We had in-services in classrooms, a theatrical play, regular notices in the weekly parent letter, lots of articles and photos in the newspaper, a speaker invited to school, and participation in a town parade. It is a challenge to keep those kinds of things going on consistently to maintain awareness of the program."

From the start of the program, parents assisted in the cafeteria as monitors of food sorting, but Goodwin learned over time that kids make better monitors and require minimal help from teachers on duty. The teachers needed as much instruction about compostable materials as the children, so Goodwin put notes next to the coffee machine in the teachers' room. Cafeteria workers noted that the school actually lost less silverware as a result of the program because the person who is responsible for taking out the compost rescues the occasional bowl or flatware.

Goodwin is still impressed by the program's longevity. One group of third grade boys told her that when they ran out of things to do during lunch, they calculated the amount of money saved by the school through the composting program based on a chart on the wall that listed how many pounds of food were composted each day. A second grade teacher developed a unit about composting that included making sketches of the source separating table in the cafeteria, recording and graphing compost temperature, and more.

"One of the best moments for me occurred when the school was renovated," admitted Goodwin. "Without being prompted, one of the custodians who built the source separating table moved it to the new cafeteria and bolted it to the wall. That was when I knew that the school had really bought in to the compost program."

Students at Keene Central School in New York take part
in all aspects of the recycling "loop" from sorting
and composting food scraps to using the compost
in gardens and enjoying the fruit of their labor.
(photo courtesy of Bunny Goodwin)

Composting began at Keene Central School on Earth Day in April 1995. By the first day of school the following September, Goodwin was able to place a jar of finished compost on display in the cafeteria. That sparked a community gardening program at the school which has resulted in fresh produce for the cafeteria. Students often ask if the vegetables they are served, such as tomatoes, are store-bought or "theirs."

"We still have a poster with photos that show how the recycling loop is completed with composting," added Goodwin. "Everyone can see all parts of the loop from the cafeteria to the compost pile, to the garden, and back to the cafeteria. This poster is framed and is on the wall above the source separation table in the cafeteria along with framed awards and recognition that the program has received."

Go to page 2

  • Top of the Heap
    Creating less waste at Summit Cove Elementary School in Dillon, Colorado.
  • Trash Talkers
    Composting at Alice Ott Middle School in Portland, Oregon
  • Additional Resources