On Wednesday, November 16th, 2011, students from Castlemont High School's Sustainable Urban Design Academy (SUDA) took a field trip to study sustainable agriculture. The food tour allowed students to study the production, distribution, processing, consumption, disposal, and renewal of agricultural products- all without leaving campus.
Teacher Tim Bremner organized the tour to help student better understand where their food comes from and how individual actions can lead to large impacts: "I wanted students to experience a sustainable food system and literally go through the various stages that create a sustainable system. This both provides a hands on, tangible experience of the concept and it demonstrates the assets that we have as community to support healthier and more sustainable people, community and planet."
Students from two classes started their investigation of food systems and sustainable agriculture by studying the waste generated in the school cafeteria. With assistance from EarthTeam, students sorted cafeteria waste into compostable, recyclable, and landfill-bound materials.
The waste audit revealed that the largest segment of cafeteria waste by volume and by weight was uneaten food, food scraps and compostable material. Students were very disappointed to find scores of uneaten rolls, sandwiches and other lunch items mingled in the trash bins. Students found 24 pounds of uneaten food and 12 pounds of food scraps and food soiled paper. Fully 75% of the audited cafeteria waste could be composted.
Students hope to use the data from the waste audit to inform the design of an on-campus food scrap diversion program to ensure that uneaten food, valuable recyclables, and nutrient rich food scraps are diverted away from the landfill.
The waste audit also provided valuable lessons about media literacy, advertising and consumer culture. The garbage contained many small plastic bags of sliced apples; students observed ways that packaging and processing are used to support marketing noting that "apples come from nature in their own wrapper," and that they don't really need an additional plastic bag.
Once sorted, the trash from the cafeteria became treasure. One student claimed the large bag of plastic bottles to redeem at a recycling station; three others carted the 36 pounds of compostable material to the garden.
The Castlemont Garden, created and maintained largely by the school's Green Pioneer's afterschool internship program, features three separate systems for processing food scraps into new soils and fertilizers: worm bins, 3-bin compost systems, and live chickens.
Community volunteer Grey Kolevzon led a workshop teaching students different methods for composing and the importance of building healthy soil for the garden. Students learned how to create bedding for a worm bin from leaves and paper, and how to feed the worms vegetable scraps from the cafeteria.
Students also mixed dried carbon-rich leaves with wet nitrogen-rich food scraps to create healthy compost heaps in the garden's 3-bin compost system. The highlight of the food scrap tour was feeding the school's flock of chickens. The chickens were hungry for the leftover food and ready to produce eggs and chicken manure in return.
Over the last three years, students from the Castlemont campus and Leadership School-College Park have worked to create a lush, productive garden that can serve as an outdoor classroom and community food source. The garden includes dozens of raised bed planter boxes, cold frame green houses, a bee hive, fruit trees, and more.
After the compost lesson, Kolevzon noted the importance of agriculture, "Most of the products we use come from gardens and plants: food, clothes, paper, wood- are all plant based materials." He encouraged student to identify all of the inputs required to grow the things we need- the list they produced was stunningly simple and accurate: Soil, Water, Seeds, Work, Bees, & Sun.
Students harvested a small crop of lettuce, radishes and carrots for tasting and checked on the progress of other vegetable plants they started from seed earlier in the fall. While touring the garden, students found a frog that had strayed from a nearby creek- proof to them that they were creating a healthy habitat- useful to humans and nature alike.
As part of their study of urban design, students spent much of the 1st semester discussing issues of social and economic justice related to the organization and allocation of resources in urban neighborhoods. One aspect of the urban environment that drew their concern was the lack of fresh, healthy food near their homes.
To better understand alternative methods of distribution, students harvested a small portion of their garden and took it to the on-campus farmers market. There, teacher Tim Bremner gave a lesson about traditional and alternative methods of food distribution in the United States. Students learned how farmers markets can decrease the size of a community's food shed to a radius of less than 200 miles while increasing the quality and diversity of healthy food as compared to processed food trucked from hundreds or thousands of miles away. Students noted the minimal bulk cardboard box packaging of farm produce compared to the plastic wrapped apple slices they discovered in the trash.
Much of the food available in markets, convenience and liquor stores near the campus is highly processed and packaged. Bremner noted that these types of foods are trucked in from hundreds of miles away, often contain chemical additives as preservatives and come highly packaged for shelf display.
To highlight a more traditional form of "processing", market coordinator, Rosa Arciniega, provided a lesson on cooking from scratch. Using a mix of garden and Farmers Market produce along with store bought "scratch" ingredients such as masa, Arciniega cooked up a batch of empenadas and fresh salsa for a hungry and enthusiastic crowd.
The sustainable agriculture tour ended with a meal of fresh food incorporating local ingredients.
Students were encouraged to try an empanada and salsa, but not forced to take food they would not eat. Plates and napkins were chosen for composability- and compost stations out numbered garbage cans near the market. In contrast to the cafeteria, no uneaten food was thrown away and food scraps were composted. The farmers market meal was thoughtfully designed to highlight local inputs, local labor and to produce minimal waste.
While reflecting on what they had learned, students were asked how to improve the food system on campus to minimize waste and maximize health. Their recommendations?
- Finish your food!
- Ask for better food
- Collect data on what's not being eaten and suggest changes
Reflecting on the event, teacher Tim Bremner noted, "Students learned that we throw out a lot of food. They learned the importance of thinking about the food system before and after the trash can, well in this case with the audit, during the trash can."
"I think it went really well. Students really engaged in digging through the trash and actively engaged in each stage of the process. They have an experience that we can refer back to, concrete date we can use to make a case for improving our immediate food system and an understanding of the assets their campus provides."
"Now the challenge is to make it systemic."