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Students, Undertake Composting Effort Bringing Food Full Circle

Food waste generated at Kansas State University dining centers may end up back on students' plates through composting efforts that are combining K-State's excellence in agriculture with the university's commitment to sustainability.

K-State dining facilities have partnered with K-State's student farm and College of Agriculture to develop a composting program for food waste.

"It will help the students at the student farm with their produce, which they'll end up selling throughout the community," said Ben Champion, K-State's director of sustainability. "Part of that food will go back to the dining centers, so we've got a cycle going here."

Brandon Gonzalez, a senior in horticulture from Wichita, is a manager at the student farm, where students from all majors can help grow vegetables, fruit trees and mushrooms, and cultivate honey. He and Kyla Daugherty, a junior in horticulture from Berryton, pick up about 1,500 pounds worth of preparatory food waste from two of K-State's dining centers. They drop it off at the student farm and at the department of agronomy's North Farm.

At the student farm, Gonzalez said they cover the waste with a layer of carbon-rich material like hay. When the waste has been broken down into usable compost, he said the students will use it on their crops. The compost they are creating now will be used on fall crops like collards and cabbage.

"It's not going to be like the produce you buy in the store -- this is the good stuff," Gonzalez said, noting that the student farm spinach is noticeably sweeter than spinach grown in warmer climates. "A lot of places get our produce here in Manhattan. It's a local food thing."

The food waste that goes to the North Farm is combined with other organic waste generated by the College of Agriculture like leaves, tree limbs, seeds, grains and garden waste. With the help of a large tractor and a turner, Jacob Gouldie, a junior in agricultural economics from Garden City, incorporates new materials into the already-decomposing material.

Part of the compost from the North Farm gets used by the college's researchers for erosion, field and greenhouse experiments.

"Because we are a land-grant school with such a strong agriculture program -- not just in horticulture but in other units like beef and dairy production -- there are substantial amounts of manure from those operations," Champion said. "We've got those kinds of resources that could be mixed into this process, and we could really develop a lot of high-quality fertilizer for our use on campus and in the community."

Although K-State is making great efforts to reduce and recycle all types of waste on campus, Champion sees potential to reuse other organic waste on campus.

"All the food waste in our K-State Student Union food court is potentially compostable now that the Union has purchased compostable plates and biodegradable plasticware," he said. "We're seeing a potential synergy with changes in our purchasing behavior that can actually fuel this other process."

DeAnn Presley, extension specialist and assistant professor of agronomy at K-State, obtained the contract from the Kansas Department of health and Environment for the compost operation at the agronomy farm, while Rhonda Janke, associate professor of horticulture, forestry and recreation resources, developed the student farm.

Ben Champion | Newswise Science News
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