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Raising Green Kids: The Trick is Getting Their Hands Dirty

“Gross! Ewww!” was my kids’ response when I asked them to start collecting their kitchen scraps for the compost pile. This is back when they were pre-teens and I was launching into composting for the first time. It didn’t help that I was asking them to put their scraps in a smelly countertop crock which attracted loads of fruit flies but repelled everyone else. Collecting food scraps was a necessary but “yucky” part of the new rules in our kitchen.

The point is, getting my kids to think and act “green” about recycling their food wasn’t accomplished overnight or with a parental lecture. I couldn’t watch them like a hawk, and I got tired of reminding them about our “new” system for handling scraps. For instance, there were a few times when I couldn’t enjoy watching my darlings eat a piece of watermelon, because I knew it meant either wasting that big rind or going trash diving later. Putting food in the trash was a tough habit to break in our household, but I eventually figured it out–the key was getting the kids involved and getting their hands dirty. Also, we figured out a “non-yucky” way to collect our scraps (actually, we ended up inventing the Green Cycler along the way!)

Food Waste: A Costly Environmental Issue

Of course, my household is just one of millions working to reduce waste and make recycling food an everyday habit. Composting is in the news all over America, and there are thousands upon thousands of people who are now being required by their municipalities to compost food scraps for the first time. Countless businesses and schools have voluntarily started green waste recycling programs even in places where it’s not the law.

Food waste is getting attention because citizens and city governments are recognizing it as a pressing environmental issue. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculates that food is the single largest component of municipal solid waste going to landfills, and that landfills are the third largest source of the greenhouse gas methane. There is more food in landfills than diapers, styrofoam and tires — combined.

By reducing the amount of food tossed into the trash, enlightened cities are seeing a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve the environment and ultimately, save a lot of money. New York City is the latest convert that passed bold new legislation requiring commercial green waste composting, and with it, thousands of restaurants are going to be getting used to their own “new” system for handling food scraps. Changing habits and mindsets takes time and effort, whether you’re talking about a city of 8 million, or my household with its slightly smaller population (unless you count the fish).

 Getting Kids Excited about Compost

I’m happy to report that my kids were willing recruits to food waste recycling. Fast forward to today, and we’ve got a great compost pile and a garden everyone tends voluntarily and joyfully. In our home, kitchen scraps are viewed as a useful resource vs. trash. It took a little trial and error to instill the new mindset, and I found that the secret was getting them involved in the whole process. I gave my kids ownership and age-appropriate tasks, from helping turn the pile, to tending the garden, to figuring out recipes to make with the beautiful produce they grew.

Most of us grew up recycling cans, paper and glass. It’s clear that food composting will be the next recycling method that goes mainstream. Personally, I got so excited about composting that I started my own company which makes compost-related products. In the course of our business, I’ve come across hundreds of parents, grandparents and educators who, like me, are working to get the younger generation excited about composting and being green.

One of them is Bob Tanem, author of five gardening books and host of his own gardening radio show in San Francisco, who says it was easy to get his kids and grandsons interested in gardening because, simply, “kids love to play in the dirt.” Tanem says, “If you can show them the process by planting a seed (perhaps a sunflower) and watching it grow, they will really be turned on by the experience.

For quicker results, you can plant a radish seed and have something to eat in 20 days. For many kids this is a wonderful example of where our food comes from.” Bob’s interest in gardening was passed down from his grandmother, who took cuttings and seeds that she would find or get from neighbors. “We were poor,” says Tanem. “And you don’t know poor like I know poor. This was before social security, so grandma came to live with us. One day she went by a neighbor’s yard and hand-picked some flower seeds. Back then, a packet of seeds cost about 5 cents, but we couldn’t even afford that.”

Despite their hardship, Bob remembers his grandmother creating a “garden paradise” in their home in Sacramento, and he loved to help her in the garden. Bob turned his childhood love of gardening into a career, and operated nurseries in the San Francisco area for many years. “My children grew up with me in the nursery business, not throwing anything away,” he says. And now, Bob is passing that tradition onto his grandsons, who have become enthusiastic helpers in the garden and in his worm composting project.

Kids examining composting worms

Kids love worms!

Learning to Love Worms

Marc Mailhot is another great example of someone working to get kids excited about composting, and he’s doing it with the help of worms. Marc is a grade 3/4 teacher at Montgomery Village school in Orangeville, Ontario. A few years’ ago, Marc introduced vermi-composting as a fun class project but it has grown into a life lesson for his students.

“The year before we got the worms, we just had a garden, and I remember some of the boys found bugs and worms and tried to squash them on the sidewalk,” Mailhot says. ”The year after we got the worm bins, it was funny to see the same boys digging through the dirt, carefully pulling up worms and setting them aside until they had finished tilling, and then distributing them all over the garden. I could see they had developed an understanding that these little creatures were part of something bigger.”

By participating in their own vermi-composting project, Marc’s students learned that worms add beneficial bacteria to the soil and the significance of their role in aeration and fertilization. The children gained a sense of reverence for the worms which were now much more than just a bug. “They understood that we depend on the worms so we can eat,” he says. The first experiment Marc’s class did with their worm-grown compost or “worm castings” was to compare the success of African violets—one control group of plants just got watered, and another group was top-dressed with worm castings. By the end of the year, the class was surprised to see the plants treated with castings grew to twice the size of the control group, and were covered with flowers, unlike the untreated plants. There was an obvious difference depending on what was added to the soil.

By raising worms, students learn a sense of reverence for their importance to soil health.

By raising worms, students learn a sense of reverence for their importance to soil health.

Being a worm farmer has been a learning experience for everyone, including Marc. One of his challenges was figuring out how to get his food scraps chopped up to the right size for the worms to consume. At first, the class tried using scissors, but this was a little risky and made Marc nervous. Then, they tried putting the food scraps in plastic bags and stomping on them. This worked all right until the day one of the bags broke and an apple shot out of the bag, scuttling down the hallway past several classrooms. “I was glad we didn’t hit a teacher,” he says. “The next thing we tried was a blender, but I was the only one who could use it, plus it chopped up the food so fine the worms would get buried in the slush.” Marc eventually found a solution to his worm-food problem with a food scrap shredding appliance made by our company, the Green Cycler. He says, ”the benefit of using a shredder is that it breaks things down so that composting happens very quickly. The kids get to see the cycle happen in a few weeks instead of months, and they get to be hands on in making food for the garden.”

A couple times a week, Marc’s class takes turns grinding the food scraps they’ve collected from classrooms and placing the food in their worm bins. When they went to plant pumpkins recently, the kids were enthusiastic about adding worm castings to the soil, because they had seen the whole cycle–they had taken what normally would be garbage, ground it up, fed it to the composter, and put it on the plants themselves, with great results. Recently, the class has been trying a new experiment, to improve the quality of the field used for PhysEd classes. Some of the kids suggested making compost tea with the worm castings to improve the lawn. The first year the experiment failed because they didn’t aerate the tea sufficiently and produce the right type of bacteria.  Marc says.” It was great to see grade 3/4 kids talking about aerobic vs. anaerobic bacteria.”

This year, the class has a new aeration solution and in the spring they will spray compost tea on the field using backpack-mounted sprayers. They’ll keep an unsprayed control area next to the composted area, and Marc is hoping that next fall one side will look like a jungle and the other will still look like a desert.

For Marc, one of the tricks for engaging students is to create a sense of awe for the natural world. In his classroom, he works to ensure that kids can see the connectivity of everything. “One of big ideas I’ve been working on with grades 3-4 is that everything depends on something else, everyone depends on someone else. It’s easy to think of ourselves as disconnected, but I want them to see that we depend on the worms, the worms depend on us, the plants depend on the bacteria. The kids see that they can contribute positively, and the fun of it is, taking these big ideas and making them practical. They’re young but they can still do big things.”

Thanks to Marc’s efforts and the students’ enthusiasm, the school received an Honourable Mention for the Jack Layton Award for Youth Action in Sustainablility. The non-profit charity, Learning for Sustainable Future (LSF) uses the award to recognize schools that have responded to community challenges with creativity, responsible citizenship and innovative action.

Bob Tanem also has a great appreciation for worms, and he’s gotten his 10-year old grandson involved in tending his worm bins and making food for them. I got to know Bob because he also uses the compost shredding appliance that we make. In fact, Bob now saves up food scraps for his grandson to shred when he visits, because Angel has so much fun using the grinder. “My grandson would prefer I never run the machine myself,” says Tanem. Tanem’s worm bin is thriving now that he started shredding food for them. He says he’s has a population explosion and he has a hard time keeping up with his worms sometimes. “It’s a midnight dance, but as long as they don’t make any noise, I don’t mind,” he says. Tanem is confident that his grandson will get even more excited about composting when they start using the worm castings on their plant starts. Tanem says, “To get a child interested in making the world a little bit better, you can’t teach. You have to do.” I couldn’t agree more.

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