Food Waste Recovery & Composting in Pitt County

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Woman using compost bin

Caitlin Cummins adding to her compost bin.

Over 21% of waste produced in the United States comes from food. Whether it is being grown, harvested, prepared, or consumed, food always creates waste. Pitt County’s Farm and Food Council Coordinator, Caitlin Cummins, wanted to find a food waste recovery solution for her community. Since 2018, she has been working with N.C. Cooperative Pitt Extension in Pitt County, local government, East Carolina University (ECU), and other community groups to initiate a local composting program. It began as a way to process organic food waste from ECU’s dining halls and retain ECU students after graduation but direction changed due to COVID-19 when Caitlin lost student interns and grant funding. Caitlin is now shifting her focus to a private composting business that supports residential and commercial compost collection and benefits Pitt’s community members and farmers.

Many farmers buy compost from larger corporations that often contain human and animal waste and biosolids, a product from the wastewater treatment process used as fertilizer. “Ours [compost] will not have any biosolids in it, which can be a concern to some farmers because biosolids can contain heavy metals,” said Caitlin. She will produce a cleaner, safer compost option for farmers that will also support an entirely local circular economy, where compost will comprise of locally grown food scraps and waste from local farms and restaurants then sold to local farmers to use as a soil amendment to grow more local foods. At this time, Pitt County has limited options for composting, especially if farmers want a localized solution. There is no infrastructure or hauling capabilities within a 50-mile radius that could manage the amount of food waste generated by Pitt’s community, let alone ECU’s dining halls. Caitlin is hopeful that her adapted business model will address the needs of farmers and support a more sustainable local food system.

Two women with shovels

Caitlin and a colleague shoveling a compost pile.

Over the 14-month learning and planning period, Caitlin leaned into the resources made available through N.C. Cooperative Extension in Pitt County. She volunteered with Community Garden Technician, Jonie Torres, to assist her with programming while gaining a better understanding of composting. At the gardens, Caitlin was also educated on other food waste recovery methods such as vermicomposting and black soldier flies. “It [Extension] helped guide me to what kind of business I ultimately wanted to pursue,” said Caitlin. She also commended Extension’s leadership and guidance in helping her feel more capable and confident in starting a composting business that serves the community. Pitt County’s Extension Director and appointed member of the Farm and Food Council, Leigh Guth, supervises Caitlin. Leigh has been an excellent resource for Caitlin in forming relationships and advocating for her business plans.

Worms in compost

Vermicomposting

Established in 2017, the Pitt County Farm and Food Council works towards prioritizing and improving the County’s local food system. There are three action circles that the Council follows: food and nutrition education, food security, and farm and economic development. Caitlin mentioned the possible introduction of a fourth action circle on food waste recovery. “This would help support and promote education around food waste recovery which would then support the composting business itself,” shared Caitlin. They are still in the process of gauging community interest in this topic, which would determine whether this fourth action circle would be instituted.

Food Waste & Composting Extension Resources

Are you interested in engaging your community in food waste recovery and composting efforts? Extension’s Resource & Waste Recovery and Composting pages are excellent places to start. Whether you want to start composting in your own backyard or at a community garden, there are lists of resources that can assist. The Resource & Waste Recovery page houses six detailed steps to curb the issue of food waste: (1) Source Reduction/Prevention (prevent food waste before it is generated), (2) Feed People (donate food to those in need), (3) Composting and Vermicomposting (recycle food scraps into a valuable soil amendment), (4) Feed Animals (provide food to livestock farmers), (5) Industrial Uses (fats, oils, and grease can be composted or turned into biofuel), and (6) Anaerobic Digestion (turn food waste into energy and a soil amendment). In addition to these steps, there are links to guides, webinars, policy-related information, and more. Under the Composting page,  there is information on home and backyard and large-scale composting as well as vermicomposting. Here you can also find resources on recycling and solid waste reduction and food waste management.

If you are hungry for more knowledge, Rhonda Sherman is the Solid Waste Specialist in the Department of Horticultural Science at NC State University. Her areas of expertise include vermicomposting, composting, and recycling. She is Extension’s ultimate resource for food waste recovery and composting, authoring 65 publications on these topics and organizing the world’s only annual conference on large‐scale commercial vermicomposting. She has also written a book, The Worm Farmer’s Handbook: Mid- to Large-Scale Vermicomposting for Farms, Businesses, Municipalities, Schools, and Institutions, and is the founder and director of a two‐acre Compost Learning Lab (CL2) at NC State University’s 1,500-acre Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory. The lab offers hands-on training and workshops that are available to Extension educators, farmers, teachers, Master Gardener℠ volunteers, and anyone else from the public. The lab opens on June 7, 2021. Email Rhonda at sherman@ncsu.edu to make an appointment today.