The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s dimly lit office of sustainability is also the home of UWM’s Food and Garden Club. The club consists of like-minded students and professors whose mission is growing sustainable food on campus. Kudzu vines climb over someone’s desk while herbs germinate at another’s. The club has a litany of seeds in stock for this season’s gardening adventures. All these dormant seeds await the embrace of fertile terra cultivated on UWM’s own property.
Members of the club work with kitchens on campus, taking matters into their own hands in regards to food waste at UW-Milwaukee. The club takes food scraps from kitchens, turns it into compost and helps grow food to put back in those kitchens. The club takes in tons of food scraps, literally. The week of March 21, the club rescued 1,700 pounds of waste. This semester alone they’ve taken in just over 14,000 pounds.
Food waste is starting to become a household topic. France has recently passed laws banning the disposal of edible food. The National Resources Defense Council reports up to 40 percent of food gets wasted annually in the United States. That all pertains to the edible food that gets thrown away, but what about the food waste that cannot be eaten? What use does a banana peel have? An apple core? The club’s efforts bring attention to the issue of food waste in a manner that is often overlooked.
Right outside the Sandburg dorms stands the Food and Garden Club’s hoop house and adjacent garden plots. The hoop house is a long structure that works like a green house, keeping the air inside warm and humid. This creates the ideal temperature for the food waste to decompose and turn into valuable soil, high in nutrients and ideal for farming.
The majority of the food waste taken in comes from the Sandburg Dorm’s restaurant operations as well as restaurants in the Student Union. All the food waste taken in by the club is pre-consumer waste. Pre-consumer waste is plant matter that has had no preservatives or seasoning on them. These are things like: onion tops, celery bottoms, fruit rinds, and even coffee grounds. During final exams, the amount of coffee grounds the club takes goes up substantially. Now students can feel a little bit better about cram studying and pulling all-nighters.
Technically, the compost created by the club is actually vegan and gluten free, since the club does not use meat, dairy and grains. They do so because those items tend to produce a foul odor as well as attracting molds and pests. The club wants to avoid rambunctious raccoons from ransacking their hoop house.
Anything else that is unusable by the club is taken away by Sanimax, a food waste recycling service. Sanimax is able to take things like half eaten cheeseburgers and used fryer oil and turn them into products like animal feed and biofuel. This service still requires a pickup fee, but oddly enough it is less expensive than the average trash pick up. Through these actions, the school saves money and works closer towards a goal of sustainability.
Associate Director of Restaurant Operations at UWM and former executive chef of Sandburg cafeteria, Brian Vetter, says he is excited about these efforts.
“It’s always important to be on the forefront of what’s current, what makes sense, and what’s good for the school and the environment,” said Vetter.
He also mentioned that close to 100 percent of the waste generated at restaurant operations gets reused in one way or another. In addition to reusing their waste, Sandburg’s kitchen staff also tends to a few garden plots outside Sandburg dorms. Jalapeños, heirloom tomatoes, squash, and eggplants are among some of the home-grown vegetables used by the kitchen. In addition to those vegetables, the kitchen maintains a rooftop garden for growing salad greens.
Restaurant operations’ website explains that these items are used in a variety of soups, sauces, vegetable and entrée dishes. These gardens and their composting efforts are just a few examples of the operations’ L.O.C.A.L. (Living, Operating, Consuming, Acquiring, Locally) concept. The L.O.C.A.L. concept strives to use as many products from Wisconsin as possible. However, the products must remain of superior quality and be economically honorable.
The Food and Garden Club actually supplies the kitchens on campus with basil and mint. They have essentially created a closed food loop by turning scraps to compost, compost into herbs, herbs into food, and scraps back into compost. This is a process the club would love to see done on a bigger scale.
Currently the club’s main obstacles deal with the misuse of compost bins on campus, attracting more volunteers and also receiving donations to maintain and expand their efforts. Many of the club’s seeds and germination mediums have been a result of donation.
The cooperation of kitchens on campus and the Garden Club is a foot in the door for the office of sustainability’s overall goals. Ideally, the whole campus could be involved in efforts towards sustainable behavior.
Garden Club member and fourth year student of Environmental Geography Matthew Rudman is interested in just that. As an Environmental Geography student, Rudman studies topics like food deserts, brown fields, and learns about human-environmental interactions. Currently he’s working on a research paper about engaging students and faculty in topics and behaviors surrounding organic waste.
He said that the club’s initiative and the kitchen’s help are some good examples of engagement, but he’d like to see more. The club has many ideas for continuing its mission of sustainable food production on campus. They have even floated ideas of using the wooded area between Chapman Hall and Sandburg dorms as a mushroom farm. By spreading mushroom spores over the dead logs, the area would be an ideal environment for some edible varieties. The land is technically a part of Downer Woods so there would have to be some proposals and permits put into action. In theory, the mushroom farming wouldn’t damage the woods area. They would only be facilitating a natural process likely to occur anyway.
Rudman said the club encourages students and faculty to engage in gardening and food production. The club invites anyone to stop by the Sandburg gardens, pull a tomato off the vine for a snack and engage with the edible side of environmental sustainability. Little interactions like the gardens, composting, and future plans help spread the Club’s mission as well as the Office of Sustainability’s.
Anyone wishing to help out can join the Food and Garden Club or contact the Office of Sustainability to inquire about volunteer opportunities. The office can be reached at, “firstname.lastname@example.org.” The club can also be found on Facebook under the name, “UWM Food and Garden Club.”
Outside the dorms, the garden plots are showing a few signs of life. A rhubarb plant’s strange red bulb is erupting from the soil. Strawberry plants are sprouting new leaves. Chives are popping up all around, some of them already trimmed from use in someone’s kitchen. Rudman bends down, plucks a chive scape, pops it in his mouth and says something in between bites.
“When people go to college they should leave with a sense of social responsibility.”