Worms In School

Vermiculture composting for cafeteria waste

One of the articles in Creating A Future We Can Live With (IC#40)
Originally published in Spring 1995 on page 8
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute

What are worms doing at Laytonville Middle School in Northern California? Helping students learn about the relationship between soils, good food, and compost.

In 1992, with $250 from student council funds, some uncertainty and some hope, teacher Binet Payne and her students started worm composting with food from the school cafeteria and discarded paper from classrooms. The start-up money purchased the lumber and supplies for worm beds, a bucket of red wrigglers, and Mary Appelhof’s book, Worms Eat My Garbage.

In one school year, vermi-composting recycled 3,600 pounds of cafeteria food waste into worm castings. These are now used to fertilize the lettuce grown for the school salad bar, enabling students to experience the nutrient cycle first hand.

The worms are proving their worth in the classroom and in the school budget. During the 1993-94 school year, the students saved the California school district $6,000 in dumpster fees and thousands of gallons of water that would have been used to run uneaten lunch leftovers down garbage disposals.

An Education in Balance

"The beauty of this program is that it’s the kids’ program," said Payne, who in addition to teaching, serves as the district’s garden manager. "They make the decisions about what to grow, they build the raised beds, and pick the vegetables."

The students have taken over the salad bar and are now planting, processing, and preparing all of the vegetables. Last year the class planted and grew lettuce for the cafeteria for free, this year they’re selling the lettuce and providing free arugula, edible flowers, spinach, radishes, and tomatoes. The class is not only learning gardening skills, but marketing, business management, and bookkeeping.

"This is a great way to get the kids in touch with the environment and where their food comes from," said Payne, whose methods have given the students a personal understanding of the balance necessary in a successful organic garden.

As one student gardener explained, "If there is a problem with an insect, we make sure we do not hurt another insect with the solution. In our garden, we copy nature as much as we can. We try to use a natural balance."

A step-by-step guide to implementing a vermiculture program in schools and public agencies is available by writing Binet Payne, Educational Gardens, Laytonville Unified, PO Box 325, Laytonville, CA 95454.

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