An exercise in fertility: Schools to turn food waste into compost

Ryan McConnell, the president of the Colorado Mesa University Sustainability Council, left, and John Heideman, a culinary arts student at Western Colorado Community College, unload bags of compost at the college’s new facility.

Sometimes it’s OK to be worm food.

Members of a planning team for Colorado Mesa University and Western Colorado Community College’s new composting facility plan to deliver a feast of leaves, horse manure and food waste from the schools to worms in at least one bin at the facility. Nine more bins will be devoted to creating worm-free compost made from the same ingredients.

Construction of the composting facility began Wednesday on a 60-foot by 90-foot triangle of land northeast of the community college’s Building B. The site is mostly a patch of dirt now but will soon contain a series of 5-cubic-foot bins that will produce a finished pile of compost about once every three weeks. The compost will be used in raised crop beds installed a month ago next to the compost site to provide vegetables and herbs for WCCC culinary classes. The facility also will supply about a third of the compost needed for grounds crews on the Colorado Mesa campus.

CMU Sustainability Council President Ryan McConnell said the project will provide four work study jobs, a wealth of study opportunities for biology and culinary students and a way to keep methane-producing food waste out of the Mesa County Landfill.

“We’re bringing things back into the food cycle,” he said. “Hopefully it will create a cultural paradigm shift that will bring sustainability to our culture in general.” 

The idea for the facility popped into McConnell’s mind two years ago. He was a first-year student at Colorado Mesa when student government leaders announced the percentage of student fees devoted to environmental projects would be lowered. The only way to stop that, the then-student government president told McConnell, was to come up with quality, sustainable projects that promoted environmental concerns on-campus.

McConnell began speaking to students and staff at the university and gained support for a facility that would turn food waste into compost. A planning team of students and faculty advisers formed and began putting the project together. The university’s rodeo team agreed to provide horse manure for the compost-making process. Leaves and worms came from Fort Collins and more leaves will be provided from Fruita’s fall leaf pick-up program. Bins would be provided for culinary students and CMU cafeteria workers to toss food waste created during meal preparations.

There are no plans yet to expand the compost program to include food left over after students finish their meals in the cafeteria, but McConnell said he could see that happening in the future.

Bryan Reed, a WCCC culinary arts instructor who will help oversee the composting facility, said he’s excited to see food waste used in a way that can teach his students sustainable practices he hopes they will bring to restaurants after they graduate.

“It’s a process to introduce sustainable cuisine to the culinary department so we can establish relationships with local growers, use produce that’s in season and see food waste become the next generation of food for the raised food beds,” Reed said.

Reed said the facility will provide opportunities for biology students to conduct experiments with compost as well and allow marketing students an opportunity to attract buyers for a liquid tea by-product of the worm compost, or vermicompost. The organic-friendly tea can be sprayed on plants to dissuade pests from chomping on produce or landscaping.

Culinary student and planning team member John Heideman said everyone on the committee who made the composting facility a reality has dreams for its growth in the future. For now, he said everyone is excited to see it get going, hopefully by the end of the month.

“If it grows into something, that’s wonderful. But to serve the university community and serve as a learning lab ... to actually be doing stuff instead of learning the theory is what’s important,” he said.


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