Thanks to a unique collaboration with USDA’s Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production, food leftovers from six district schools are now being sorted, bagged and collected before being mixed with organic yard waste and processed into compost at the county’s recycling center. In the first six weeks of the program, almost eight tons of food scraps have been recycled rather than buried in the county landfill. “It’s exciting to be up and rolling,” said Jeanne Jabara, who serves as energy education and sustainability coordinator for Prince William County Schools. “We have this one year operating with grant funding and we’re off to a great start.”

Prince William operates the state’s second-largest school district (only Fairfax County’s is bigger), with more than 90,000 students attending classes in 95 buildings. The idea of recycling food waste had been somewhere on the long-range radar since 2013, but the district decided to pursue a USDA grant less than a month before the 2020 application deadline.

Jabara teamed up with Bernie Osilka from Prince William’s Department of Public Works to develop the Community Compost and Food Waste Reduction (CCFWR) project proposal in less than two weeks. When it was selected as one of the nation’s first pilot projects, the team envisioned using the 2020-21 academic term as a planning year and initiating composting this fall.

“Planning,” however, didn’t exactly go as planned thanks to the COVID pandemic. Students stayed at home for much of the year and those who returned to classes in the spring ate meals in their classrooms rather than in school cafeterias. “It meant we had less data and needed to do more estimating,” Jabara said, “and that we’d be hitting teachers and staff at the pilot schools with a lot of information when the kids came back in August.”

Early October found the new system up and operating at all six pilot locations. At Victory and Mullen elementary schools, students brought their plates to a lunchroom monitor who helped ensure that no flatware or plastic cups found their way into the trash cans reserved for compost. Designated cafeteria hosts handled this job at Mullen while teachers and volunteers filled the role at Victory.

On a normal day, Victory’s cafeteria serves lunch to about 570 students over the course of two hours.  While the atmosphere may seem totally chaotic to someone unused to the “ambience” of a primary school lunchroom, organization can be detected amid the uproar as bags of compostable refuse are eventually filled and set outside for collection. The school district and the county then bring in their commercial partners to complete the next stage of the process. The Compost Crew of Rockville, Md., dispatches trucks to pick up bags of pre-sorted food waste and take them to Prince William’s Balls Ford Road recycling facility, where Freestate Farms of Manassas, the county’s organic waste treatment contractor, maintains a large compost production operation.

Cafeteria scraps are first mixed with leaves, grass clippings and other yard and garden waste and then shredded, passing over magnets at one point to allow for extraction of miscellaneous metal. The compost is then ripened, first in a concrete bunker and eventually in long columns of 20-foot-high piles called “windrows.” Shredded remnants of biodegradable green bags used to collect uneaten food at the schools are easy to spot in the mounds of dark brown compost aging and awaiting final processing.

An innovative process that aerates the compost while it matures has shortened the time between collection and resale from 12 to six months. The first compost including waste from the six schools will thus be usable in February or March. “We’ll have a buyer for every bag of it,” said Jeffrey Morton, Freestate’s site manager at Balls Ford Road. “We always do.”

Not every bag, however, will be offered for sale as Freestate also has agreed to supply an unspecified amount of compost to the school district free of charge. Each of the six pilot schools has garden areas, which should be well supplied for spring planting. “We may have the capacity at the composting plant to eventually handle waste from every school, although it would take many years to get there,” said Osilka, a solid waste disposal specialist. “This first year is helping us preserve landfill space and raise awareness about our composting center, where we just had a major expansion.”

While the cooperative agreement funding ($88,270) is expected to cover all but about $4,000 of this year’s expenses, the future of the program is undecided beyond the current school year. Jabara hopes to have made the case for continuing and expanding it by the end of the term. She says costs will ultimately drive the decision making and her team is on a mission to make sure everyone sees the benefits of this project. “The kids have adapted real well,” said Daniel Bouthillier, Victory’s cafeteria manager. “I think everyone on the food services side has always been ready to begin a program like this, but we needed a spark to make it happen. Jeanne Jabara, I’ll say, is still providing that spark. Every program like this needs an evangelist, and she’s ours.”

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