Cheers to Two Years! A Look at UK’s Food Waste Composting.

Time flies when you are composting food waste! It’s hard to believe that 2 years ago today we picked up the first cart full of food waste from UK Dining. Since that first pick up, the University has composted over 100 TONS (which is 200,000 POUNDS) of material. This project was the culmination of years worth of trials and errors before landing on this specific partnership and program. 

Prior to 2019, the University had worked hard to figure out a solution to food waste. In the early 2000’s a hard working group of individuals actually picked up old pickle buckets of waste from the ‘Commons’. For those of you not familiar with old-school campus, that was The 90 before The 90 was even thought of. Although that program successfully transported material to UK’s South Farm, it wasn’t sustainable from a labor or transportation perspective. Plus, it’s hard to effectively collect all of the university’s food waste in a pickle bucket.   

For a number of years after, UK had a great partnership with Seedleaf. Seedleaf provided UK Dining with buckets to collect food waste (mostly prep-waste: fruit and veggie peels). Collected food waste was then taken to one of seedleaf’s community garden and compost pile. The university soon produced too much food waste for Seedleaf’s community operation.

Thanks to a partnership with UK Dining, the new dining halls were built at The 90 and Gatton Student Center. This strategic partnership included avenues to address food waste reduction and collection, specifically through pulpers installed in each dishroom. This machine captures all compostable material (leftover food on the plate, napkins, and even bones), grinds it into uniform pieces and extracts about 50% of the moisture, making it an excellent material to compost. Looks a little like coleslaw, without the mayo.

It became clear that UK needed to figure out a solution for the waste it was generating and thus began the University of Kentucky Composting Partnership.  After many discussions, planning meetings, and a Sustainability Challenge Grant, we picked up our first cart of food waste from Champions Kitchen.

This program brought together a unique group of departments from campus:

  • UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment (UKCAFE): The actual composting component of this program. They currently accept food waste at the C.Oran Little Research Farm in Woodford county. Food waste is mixed with animal bedding and manure and processed in a windrow system, which is managed by on-site staff.  
  • UK Waste, Recycling & Trucking: This is the team that moves the material and checks for quality and contamination. Additionally, they manage the waste diversion data for annual reporting. 
  • UK Dining: This team makes the food! They not only make the delicious food, but collect the food waste, maintain the pulper and check for quality and contamination.  
  • UK Sustainability: For many years, UK Sustainability worked to identify partners both on and off campus to jump start a food waste program. They worked hard to tell the story and communicate this work to all of campus. 
  • UK Grounds: This team uses the compost! Finished compost is brought back to campus to use as a soil amendment on the lawns and in the flower beds throughout campus.

We have come a long way in 2 years, especially since one of those years included a global pandemic. No matter how much success this program has, it is always important to look at food as a resource and never a waste. Composting food should always be the last option, never the first. We have amazing people working hard to fight food insecurity on campus by repurposing leftover food. Campus Kitchens, Big Blue Pantry, The Food Connection are all important aspects of managing food efficiently. 

Our work isn’t done. There are plenty of other opportunities – expanding food donation programs, collecting food waste from coffee shops and even collecting paper towels for compost. We are excited to see this program grow and hope you will get involved!

Get involved with Campus Kitchens! Learn more about what they do and sign up to work a cooking shift!

Joanna Ashford

Joanna has served as the Recycling Coordinator for the University of Kentucky since 2018. She continues to work with campus partners to minimize waste and find creative solutions to waste generated. As staff advisor for Lexington Environmental Youth Outreach, Joanna is passionate about environmental education and outreach!

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