UC Food Composting Continues Historic Campus Tradition
JUNE 13, 2008-- While several thousand people dine at the contract and retail food services in the University Center each day, the idea of pursuing sustainability in food supplies and waste management on campus might seem like a supersized initiative.
But what seems like an impossible task has captured the interest of students like Justin Townsend, a junior from River Falls majoring in conservation, and Eric Wickstrom, a graduate student working toward an M.S.E. in biology who also is pursuing a certificate in sustainable community development.
When UWRF began negotiating a new dining services contract, Townsend, through a sustainability class assignment for Professor Kelly Cain, began researching sustainable food practices that would enhance current systems on campus.
He discovered other campuses across the country that had adopted similar practices.
"They were setting guidelines of purchasing food that was not only organic, but could be purchased locally through sustainable agriculture that avoided erosion of the soil, and that also treated animals in a humane manner," Townsend said.
The guidelines, he found, are expansive--such as requiring a percentage of produce, dairy products, or meat to be purchased locally. "Organic" food must meet the criteria of the USDA Organic Certification program or locally grown food as a preferred product to purchase. For example, Townsend said, food purchasing would start within 100 miles of River Falls, then extend into the St. Croix Valley, and reach into Wisconsin and Minnesota.
"The break-even point is still being researched," Townsend says. "At the moment it's slightly more expensive for sustainable agriculture. But with rising gas and food prices, the break-even point is quickly approaching,"
Armed with his research and a growing list of St. Croix Valley food producers, Townsend approached Tom Weiss, UWRF's purchasing director, who was coordinating the Request For Proposal for campus dining services.
Weiss said he was impressed with Townsend's efforts. "We incorporated many of his ideas into the RFP," Weiss said. Weiss anticipates that proposals will be reviewed in late spring.
Where food comes from is a big concern in sustainable food practices, but an equal concern is what happens to food waste. Through a UW System grant that Wickstrom pursued through Cain's graduate program, UWRF is now a pilot project for the UW System for composting food waste.
Composting at UWRF dates back to the 1990s, including a food waste from grocery stores study, funded through the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. One outcome was a manual for farmers and grocery stores that describes the most effective processes, according to Professor Bob Butler, project coordinator. Farm Manager Bill Connolly says despite the irritant of still plowing up plastic bags disposed improperly into the scraps provided to the farm, the project proved food composting can work well.
Other laboratory farms composting studies have ranged from recycling pizza boxes from the residence halls to processing city leaves to treating animal waste. The latter project is attuned to demonstrating that farms and urban neighborhoods can co-exist, and the new Dairy Learning Center has been key to that research with a compost pad and treatment pond to reduce odors.
Connolly reports lab farms are producing about 400,000 pounds of compost annually for use on the farms or for sale to residents and businesses. Food composting from the dining services will begin as soon as a suitable location is found on Farm No. 1, according to Connolly.
According to Wickstrom, a slurry system separates food waste from other trash at the University Center, and the scraps are then pulverized and dried in a centrifuge, producing up to 400 pounds of material that could be composted per day.
"Our grant is to see if our program is replicable across the UW campuses," says Wickstrom, who will complete his analysis during spring semester.
Wickstrom is devoting substantial attention to interpreting laws on how food scraps, manure and other compost must be handled. The project also examines the food compost's nutrient content, which can be balanced through the introduction of carbon, phosphorous or nitrogen at the lab farm.
Wickstrom said his long-term vision would be to explore implementing a similar composting program with food waste from River Falls public schools.
The Hudson native brings a personal passion to the composting program and his other professional interests. "The ability to put your degree to work on campus is wonderful," he says. Townsend also supervises a youth job corps program the Community Design Center of St. Paul. His group is reclaiming a Mississippi River brownfield called the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, named for a distinguished UWRF alumnus who was a late Minnesota congressman.
Wickstrom says his projects and the UWRF experience are a great mix of personal and professional passions in achieving a sustainable community. "We have a lot of good things going on here," he says. "I could spend hours talking about them."
Photo, above, left: UWRF Food Services Coordinator Jerry Waller and graduate student Eric Wickstrom are seen by the University Center food pulper. Some 400 pounds of dining scraps from campus food services will be crushed and composted daily for use on the campus or for re-sale. Currently the campus produces as estimated 200 tons of compost from its laboratory farm operations each year.
Thursday, 22-Apr-2010 16:09:06 Central Daylight Time
University of Wisconsin - River Falls