Dining halls beginning to compost waste

The introduction of composting bins for napkins into campus dining halls signals a new level in the relationship between the College and Caretaker Farm, an organic, community-supported farm on Water Street.

Williams has composted preparation scraps for the past two years and students have brought the bins out to the farm on a daily basis from all dining halls except Baxter Hall. Baxter does not compost as a result of the large scale of the waste produced there. The program began as an experiment at Dodd dining hall, because it its the smallest of the dining halls. The success there lead to an expansion which included Mission Park, Driscoll and Greylock dining halls.

Manager of Mission Dining Hall Mike Cutler noted the dining halls were initially contacted by the Center for Environmental Studies. He acknowledged “an initial resistance to change,” but explained “the various departments have integrated composting smoothly into their routines.”

Cutler noted this is not the first time that dining services has interacted with Caretaker Farm, as food was formerly purchased from the farm. This arrangement was maintained until Caretaker was no longer able to provide the quantity of food demanded.

Mission generates between 50 and 75 pounds of preparation scraps a day but this is just a fraction of the food waste produced daily. Cutler said, “The food scraps which are placed on plates on the conveyer go into a catchall where they are shredded and go into a landfill. One of the reasons that plate scrapings are not composted is that once it has gone onto students plates, it is not possible to know what has happened to it. We have lost all quality control.”

Director of Dining Services James Hodgkins discussed plans for the eventual expansion of plans to include that which is currently sent to landfills. He noted, “In addition to issues of quality control which all dining halls face, Baxter, which generates by far the most waste, currently uses a system in which waste is fed into a pulper which separates solids and liquids. The system reduces waste six to one from before it was compacted.”

The use of this system which Hodgkins characterized as “fast and efficient” raises hurdles to composting because of chemicals and rinsing agents used in the process.

Hodgkins also noted another hurdle to composting food waste is the availability of the resources. Composting depends upon student workers and there may not be money in the budget to expand the program unless it becomes more efficient.

Aya Reiss ’00, the composting co-ordinator, noted, “We need to make students aware that the food they don’t eat is going to a land fill. Self service of food has helped the situation but there is still a lot of room for improvement.”

Reiss addressed the possibility of composting food scraps, speculating, “If we could have a system where first years would begin separating their plate waste, the system could be integrated within four years. Currently there are concerns that students would place items such as popsicle wrappers or the non-compostable materials in with their food scraps.”

Food scraps are bought to Caretaker daily, piled into a large composting bin and covered with leaves. The farmers, Sam and Elizabeth Smith, spread the compost into long lines which are called wind rows, causing the compost to break down into usable nutrients.

Caretaker is an organic, community-supported agriculture farm. Sam Smith noted that Caretaker, which has been organic for 25 years, is the oldest continuously organic farm in New England. Caretaker currently has 170 subscribing households of which 75 percent are from Williamstown, including many professors’ households.

The movement for community-supported agriculture began in Japan and Europe in the 1970s. The first CSA farm in the U.S. was started in Great Barrington in 1986. Currently there are about 700 CSA farms in America. Two-thirds of the CSA farms in the U.S. use a system in which households purchase a subscription to a farm and then come weekly to pick up whatever produce is available.

Smith noted, “This system results in an intimate relationship between the farmer and the people who eat his food. It helps me know what people want and people gain a deeper understanding of the source of their food. I can’t grow kumquats or bananas, but I can grow food that people can survive on. CSA is more about that relationship than it is about food.”

“Community-supported agriculture is a radical economic relationship,” Smith continued. “In the capitalist system, producers and consumers often don’t meet each others’ needs. People want to buy things cheaply which forces producers to resort to techniques which are not, in the long run, sustainable. On the other hand, producers want to produce that which they want people to buy, not necessarily what people need.”

Smith cited community-supported agriculture as an escape from that cycle.

He stated CSA is more secure than conventional agriculture. “CSA requires a committment on the part of the community to support a farm through thick and through thin. The community needs to be realistic,” Smith said. “This is a liberating force which allows the farmer to take risks which the farmer without a committed community cannot take.” Smith described CSA as “a system in which people support a farm and get free food.”

Caretaker farm is comprised of 35 acres, of which seven are arable. As a result of crop rotation and allowing fields to lie fallow, at any given time only four acres are being farmed. Those four acres produce 100,000 pounds of food annually.

The Smiths have taught several Winter Study classes at Williams and runs a seasonal internship in which aspiring farmers work on the farm in return for housing, a small stipend, and an education in organic farming.

Joel Tolman ’98 interned at the farm in the summer of ’96. He said, “The experience made it obvious to me that organic farming works. The yield is equal to that of conventional agriculture. Caretaker raises food for a community.”

Tolman noted that although he was impressed by the functionality of the farm he realized that for him “the farm living pace was too slow–there was not a constant input of ideas. My idea of farming had been idealized. The constancy of the activities and always being in one place was stifling.”

Tolman said, “I found one of the most important elements of Caretaker to be its identity as a community center–a focal point for a lot of peoples’ lives. People meet people and connect.

“During that summer Williams wasn’t composting, but Caretaker was getting compost from other sources including a mushroom growing plant and leaves from North Adams and Bennington.”

In April 1997, the Purple Druids submitted a study of possibilities for moving to all-campus composting to the presidents office.

Their recommendation pressed for the composting of plate scrapings and the eventual establishment of an on campus composting facility.

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