Huff (10) establishes cafeteria composting initiative


Isabella Ciriello, Staff Writer

“We’re at a pivotal moment within our environment and what it’s gonna look like in the next 15-20 years, so why not start at a root cause – food waste – which has a huge impact on our carbon footprint?” Nia Huff (10) said. She created a composting initiative which the school will implement next year to reduce food waste. 

The project is still in the planning stage, but Huff plans to station bins in the cafeteria so students and faculty can separate compostable food, she said. Huff is confident the project will begin next year once she gets the approval of Upper Division (UD) Head Dr. Levenstein, Head of School Dr. Tom Kelly, Head of Facilities Management Gordon Jensen, and Senior Director of Dining Services Brenda Cohn, she said. An outside company will pick the bins up throughout the week to continue the process. Signs and members of Green HM will help facilitate the process, she said.

Composting lowers methane emissions, improves the health of soil, and eliminates the need for chemically-based fertilizers, Huff said. Compostable foods include fresh foods that have not been cooked such as fruits and vegetables, and also cooked foods such as pastas and sauces, she said.

Huff thought of the idea after observing the high quantities of food waste the school produced during the pandemic with the increased production of recyclable waste with the use of to-go food containers, she said. 

Huff found other private schools, such as The Nightingale-Bamford School, The Ethical Culture Fieldston School, and The Spence School, have all recently started composting initiatives in the past few years. This discovery motivated Huff to pitch her idea for next year, she said. “They’re all similar sized schools, so [I thought] we can definitely make that attainable.”

Composting has been attempted before, but is not viable in the long term because of the resources required to maintain it, Dr. Kelly wrote in an email. “Nia is what changed,” he wrote. “She’s an impressive individual who has a track record of succeeding with her initiatives under the most challenging of circumstances.”

Huff pitched her idea at a GreenHM club meeting, she said. She next spoke with history teacher Dr. Ellen Bales, Cohn, and Jenson to bring her idea to life, she said. They encouraged her to do research about what composting at the school would require from the Facilities and Dining Services Departments, she said.

Huff found it would be best for an outside company to take the compost rather than the school create an onsite composting system as it takes a lot of resources to maintain it. She is in the process of finding outside companies that will pick up the compost throughout the week and properly dispose of it. “[An outside company] takes away a lot of the responsibility for the maintenance department and upkeep of composting,” she said. “That’s one of the benefits that has helped the program begin.”

James Ostuni, a member of the Maintenance Department, is supportive of the composting initiative, even though it would require more work from the staff, he said. “Kids would have to be conscious and make sure that they don’t put spoons and stuff like that [in the compost],” he said.

Ostuni would support the initiative only if the school was able to use the compost, because he does not want an outside company taking a much-needed resource for the campus, he said. “We’re doing all the work and then a company’s going to make money,” he said.

Gabby Solmson (9) supports composting because of its environmental benefits. “It’s a really good way to give back [to the environment] considering how much waste the average student makes,” Solmson said.

According to an article from Volume 118, Junior Issue 1 of the Record, the school produces 80 to 100 55-gallon bags of food waste per day. However, the cafeteria staff does their best to minimize food waste by cutting fruits close to the skin, and ensuring food is stored at the proper temperature so it lasts longer.

Food waste is an important issue for Coco Trentalancia (11) because it is a major contributor to climate change, so she hopes composting will help students be more mindful of their waste. “I’ve seen so many people toss full salads in the trash with just a bite or two in them,” she said.

Trentalancia worries some students will not take composting seriously or have the time to separate their food. “It’s easier to throw [food] out or use plastic because everyone goes away because they’re all so busy,” she said.

Like Trentalanica, GreenHM member Alara Yilmaz (10) predicts that students will not have time to compost, similar to how many students often opt to use paper plates instead of reusable ones because they’re easier to dispose of, she said. “I try to use the reusable plates as much as possible at school, but even then I still use paper plates most of the time because it’s easier to throw out and clean up,” she said.

Huff is concerned that students’ busy schedules will cause them to be less motivated to compost. However, she hopes that by educating students about the beneficial effects of composting it will encourage students to help reduce the school’s impact, she said. “It will take a little bit of investment to readjust ourselves to the new way of disposing or trash,” Huff said. “However, I think a lot of people will take the extra minute to just make sure the compost goes where it’s supposed to.”

Despite the benefits of the project, Huff predicts that students will struggle to acclimate to the new way of disposing food waste, she said. “Students will have to become better with separating their waste,” she said. “For example, they have to make sure they don’t put [meat and dairy products] in with the composting. They [will have to] pay a little more attention to how they distribute and how they empty out their waste.”

Eventually, composting will be integrated into students’ daily routines, GreenHM member Maddie Kim (10) said. “For example, middle schoolers have to use trays, and although they don’t want to, they do — so I think composting will become a part of our daily ritual,” she said.

Kim is glad the school will start composting because it will teach students about food waste and overconsumption, she said. “We do it at Dorr, and I think it’s a great way to reduce our food waste, and it’s going to help save the environment. Anything that we can do is helpful.”

Like Kim, Trentalancia likes that while at John Dorr Nature Laboratory the faculty teaches students about composting, but she wishes that practice is carried over to the school, she said. “We had the compost bin, recycling, et cetera with trash,” she said. “And we were so mindful of separating each thing.”

Head of Dorr Nick DePreter believes composting at the UD could be a very successful initiative if the students are mindful while separating their food, he said. “The number one best thing to do is eat everything,” he said. “But if you can’t finish, and you’re going to put your pizza crust in the trash, but put half an apple in the compost, that’s awesome.”

Yilmaz is concerned the composting initiative will not be as successful as it is at Dorr because most of the food in the cafeteria cannot be composted because most of it is cooked, she said. “People are going to end up throwing everything in the garbage instead of separating it.”

Another concern is that students might not want to go to the cafeteria to compost their food if they ate lunch elsewhere on campus, Solmson said. “A lot of students don’t really eat in the cafeteria, so it’s possible that not all the students will be composting, but I think a lot of students like who can, will,” she said.

It is difficult for the cafeteria staff to minimize their waste because of the unpredictability around if students will like a certain food option, so at the end of the day they might have extra, or run out, Yilmaz said. “For example, on the International Food Festival day they still had the full cafeteria and they had the full hot food section prepared for it,” she said. “Not many people went there because everybody went to the International Food Festival so that was a really huge food waste.”

The school is already mindful about food waste, such as using leftover food from lunch for after-school activities and events, but composting is an impactful next step to further minimize it, Kim said. The FLIK staff reuses leftover food from lunch like pasta at the salad bar the next day to minimize their food waste, Kim said. “Composting could even take us further.”