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VUHS benefits from compost started as student project

VERGENNES — In early November, a campaign that a high school student kicked off almost five years ago — to create a composting system at Vergennes Union High School — came to fruition when volunteers spread the first finished batch of compost on garlic beds at the Willowell Farm & Garden in Monkton.
Marcy Langlais, now a graduate of the Walden Project alternative outdoor high school sponsored by VUHS and supported by the Willowell Foundation, started thinking about composting during her junior year in 2009-2010. Walden Project students are required to complete a land-based project as part of their final portfolio. Langlais decided to focus on “closing the loop” of food production, consumption and waste between the high school and her alternative program. In essays and conversations with Walden Project teachers Matt Schlein and Becky Dowdy, she envisioned how Walden students would collect food waste at the high school, compost it at the Willowell land by feeding it to chickens, and then send eggs back to VUHS. As a whole, the system comprised what Langlais called a “cycle of sustainability.”
With help from teachers, classmates, Willowell AmeriCorps members and board members, and VUHS facilities staff and administration, Langlais organized a trash audit in the spring of 2011. That audit determined that the school produced about 70 pounds of food waste per day, which meant that the composting system would need to accommodate between 5 and 6 tons per year.
A group of Walden Project students visited the Highfields Center for Composting to learn the basics of composting and what it would take to start collecting food scraps at the high school. They also visited Ferrisburgh Central School, which started composting in 2010 and continues to maintain the system with help from parents, teachers and students. Ferrisburgh teacher Judy Elson and her husband Nick Patch, who built the structure, were helpful in clarifying some of the challenges they had encountered.
The VUHS Environmental Club (now the League of Environmental Justice) came on board with the composting initiative in spring of 2012. Two Middlebury College students, Sam Koplinka-Loehr and Eleni Polychroniadou, attended the Stone Soup Summit, organized by the ACORN Network, in April 2012. In the youth affinity discussion group, they talked with members of the environmental club about the strong interest in composting among Vergennes students and students of other Addison County schools. They applied for and received a $2,500 grant from the Middlebury College Center for Social Entrepreneurship to support the composting system at VUHS, and started the visioning process with a diverse group of interested students and staff at the school.
In June of 2012, Langlais graduated having generated interest and a foundation of research into the feasibility of composting at the school. The Environmental Club, led by VUHS Nutrition Liaison Lynne Rapoport, Willowell AmeriCorps members and Walden students, took on the leadership of the project. As discussions evolved between the club, school officials and the Highfields Center for Composting, the system’s location and type changed from Langlais’ original vision. Instead of transporting food waste regularly to the Willowell land, the club decided it would be preferable to have a permanent composting structure behind the cafeteria in Vergennes — similar to the way Ferrisburgh’s system is set up. They had to reject the idea of chickens because of the large volume of food scraps to compost and the limited capacity of the group to care for chickens in any location.
October 2012 saw the completion of the VUHS composting structure, designed by Highfields and students, and built by Henderson Construction with the Middlebury College grant funds and support from the high school. Over the fall and winter, students and teachers at VUHS quickly adjusted to making small choices about which bin to dump their food scraps, which bin to use for recyclable plastic bottles, and which to use for trash. Environmental Club members stood by for the first few months to direct and re-direct students and teachers as the practice of composting became part of the daily routine.
Responsibility for keeping the system working is now spread out among different groups and individuals, inside and outside the school. Students in Bill Van De Weert’s agricultural science classes took ownership of monitoring the compost pile temperature during the winter, spring and into this fall. The loading and unloading of food scraps is usually completed by students in Dennis West’s DUO (Do Unto Others) class. Nick Patch brings manure to the site, which is essential to keeping the pile hot. The environmental club hosts a fall leaf drive, and community members bring the necessary carbon source directly to the school.
Although composting continues daily, the project hit a symbolic finish line early in November with the completion of the first batch of finished compost. VUHS and Willowell staff worked together to transport the compost, about 2 cubic yards, to the Willowell Farm in Monkton, where Walden Project students and teachers helped spread it on the garlic beds. Willowell Farm garlic finds its way into VUHS lunches each year, especially during the annual Local Foods Feast, founded and run by Walden Project students. This year, the feast falls on Friday, Dec 13, and will feature local vegetables, eggs, grains and meats in celebration of the environmental and social benefits of eating locally.
Moving forward, the school and Willowell plan to continue collaborating to close the loop through composting and farming. They just applied for a Farm to School Planning grant from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture that would enable the team to develop a comprehensive plan to incorporate all the sustainable food and farming initiatives currently in practice at the school more seamlessly into the curriculum while enabling the cafeteria to buy more local produce. The Mount Abraham Union High School Environmental Club recently visited the VUHS composting system to take notes in preparation for founding their own school-wide composting initiative. 

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