Welch Elementary uses cafeteria scraps to enrich soil in pilot program.
Dozens of students barrel into the cafeteria, bounding with pent-up energy and itching for the freedom to goof around with their friends. It’s lunchtime at Major George S. Welch Elementary, and a new routine has slightly altered this familiar scene: A handful of students, dressed in green aprons, pass along a small metal bin to collect food scraps, napkins and paper bags from their peers.
A few weeks ago, students and staff launched Caesar Rodney School District’s first pilot composting program.
Almost 40 students in third, fourth and fifth grade are EcoTeam members at Welch Elementary. They applied to join, answering questions about why they were interested and how they would help their school go green.
Almost every school in Caesar Rodney School District has an EcoTeam, which empowers students to lead efforts to improve the ecosystems around them. Third-grade students Phoebe Behringer and Ava Clahar said they were excited to join as some of the youngest members. “I wanted to join because I love nature and everything in it,” Phoebe said.
When Ava learned that she was moving to Delaware, she saw online that the state composted and recycled. “I wanted to start composting because back in Virginia and New Jersey, we never composted or recycled,” she said.
Both said they enjoy attending the monthly meetings where they may hear from guest speakers, make posters or learn from informative videos.
A Caesar Rodney teacher since 2006, Todd Klawinski started as the district’s first environmental education specialist a few years ago. He said the students must be the focus of the EcoTeams.
“None of this is going to matter if the kids are not involved in the leadership of it,” he said. While the teams resembled clubs at first, elementary teachers have incorporated the programming into their school day, “because they’re trying to change the culture of their school,” he said.
How it works
Each day, a teacher assigns a new composting leader who walks up and down the long cafeteria tables with a metal bin and a card indicating what can be composted. Since fourth-grade students have the last lunch, they take the full bins outside and dump them in the compost bucket.
Like environmental ambassadors, Welch EcoTeam members took charge of teaching their peers about composting. Fourth-grade student Gwendolyn Boley helped create a video to teach other students, but she said the learning process wasn’t easy.
“What was super challenging was that all these kids had to know what’s compostable or not,” Gwendolyn said. “They really never learned how to actually compost. And I think that if they learn to compost, they can make a huge difference to the world.”
Teacher Amanda Graham said any student can help collect compost during lunchtime, but the EcoTeam members are there to answer any questions their classmates may have. She recalled telling them, “You’re the expert at your table.”
Graham said she has already seen the students take their routine beyond the school. “You’d be surprised by how many kids actually don’t know that they can really make a difference at their table,” she said. “So many of them have come to me and said, ‘We’re composting at home!’”
For some, enthusiasm morphs into activism. Gwendolyn said she wishes everyone would compost. “It’s really important to compost or ... everything, like an apple, can get thrown away, and it just stays there. It has no purpose. But, if you compost it, all the little worms eat on it. It gets decomposed, and that helps the soil get more rich,” she said.
In the spring, the Welch EcoTeam hopes to use soil created from their compost to make community gardens. Unlike recycling, where students won’t see where their paper or plastic goes, students can better connect with composting because they get to see the positive results of their work, Klawinski said.
“You get the learning lesson, and then you get the fact that they’re having a very awesome, holistic experience,” he said. “They are actually making a difference.”
Since the program diverts waste from landfills, it was partially funded by DNREC’s Universal Recycling Grant. In the future, students will be able to weigh the compost and report the amount of waste diverted, Klawinski said.
Welch and Nellie H. Stokes Elementary are spearheading the district’s formal composting program, he said. "They’re the first two schools in the district to truly take on what [composting] would look like if we made this a formal program," he said.
Stokes is in the final stages of rolling out their program, a school representative said. “Our Stokes EcoTeam is looking forward to having an active presence in waste reducing,” the school said in a statement.
Graham envisions the gardens at Welch will teach environmental lessons and bring the community together.
“Our whole goal behind this is to eventually have some sense of a community garden here at Welch where our students in the summertime can come and weed and garden and plant, and just kind of help take care of things,” she said.
Student Gwendolyn Boley believes the impact will be lasting. “I hope that once I’m in high school, I can visit here when I’m an adult and see that the composting is still going on,” she said. “That would make me super happy and proud that the whole EcoTeam made a difference.”