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Updated 10:00 AM September 12, 2005




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As worms turn, food returns to campus

Thanks to a combination of a large colony of hungry red worms, food waste from a campus restaurant, the warmth of the sun, and a little rain, U-M's pilot program in a closed-loop food system is showing signs of success.

With the help of students from the College of Engineering; resources of U-M Recycling Director Tracy Artley; Matthaei Botanical Gardens Director Bob Grese; funding from the Mildred Hague Matthaei Award; and the culinary skill of Michigan Union chefs Pat Wright and Rob Sutch, the University has created a system that takes food scraps from the University Club, feeds them to worms housed in the gardens, and uses their waste to fertilize produce and herbs that are delivered back to the club.

Cultivating Community, a group of U-M students, who are supported in their efforts by faculty, staff and community members, created the system. The group's long-range vision is to link the gardens and composting program to courses, research and improvements in human and environmental health.

During the 2005 Winter Term, Professor of Engineering William Schultz and adjunct lecturer Katherine Irvine from the School of Natural Resources & Environment (SNRE) taught courses that focused on group projects in community health and sustainability. The construction of the gardens in the spring of 2005 involved students from Schultz's Engineering 490 class, Engineering for Community, who planned the initial structure of the garden, and, with the help of student volunteers, faculty and community members with expertise in gardening, implemented the plan.

Cultivating Community houses the worms in a 192-cubic-foot bin where each week the worms turn almost 50 pounds of waste collected from green barrels at the U-Club into nutrient-rich castings. The food scraps are buried under the worms' shredded paper bedding, and after about three months, the castings are transported by volunteers to four-by-eight garden beds situated between Matthaei's greenhouses.

Julie Cotton, a graduate student in SNRE, whom colleagues affectionately call "Vermina," seized the opportunity to help establish a closed-loop food system, utilizing prep and plate waste from the Union chefs and turning it into organic produce. Cotton works with volunteers and Matthaei staff to maintain the vermiculture and gardens.

"I've been interested in local food production for many years," Cotton says. "The good fortune of having a housemate advising the Engineering for Community group has led to my being a part of the birth of a project that can have so many mutually beneficial applications."

Cotton, volunteers and staff check the worm bins off and on during the week, adding new food as needed for the army of worms and checking on the condition of the tireless workers. They tend to the garden plots every few days, pulling weeds and harvesting produce and herbs to take to the club. The crew also replants the plots with new varieties as the seasons change.

The results are evident on the plates of diners at the U-Club in the Michigan Union. Cantaloupes, mesclun greens, lettuce, tomatoes, cabbage, carrots, beets and greens and herbs ranging from sweet and lemon basil to marjoram and dill are among the items grown at Matthaei and used on campus.

Union chefs incorporate items brought to them into menu selections. Chef Sutch says everything that comes from the gardens is better than what he could purchase from suppliers, because it is picked fresh and brought directly to the U-Club.

Grese says, "The project fits well with one of our goals for the Botanical Gardens and Arboretum as a place for learning about sustainable futures, using plants and ecologically-sound technologies. I am thrilled by the excitement and dedication by the students and hope we can continue to be a catalyst for projects like this that bring together various units on campus and from the community to explore good ideas."

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