Unused Produce: Compost Cats to the Rescue
Over 8,000 tons of produce head to the Rio Rico Landfill each year, and a UA Cooperative Extension student-run program is working with other agencies to put unwanted food to use.
The ‘UA Compost Cats’ will open a compost center in Santa Cruz county this fall, but they will also work with local food banks to get more unsold produce to people who need it.
"We think composting is great, but what's even better is feeding people. A lot of that tonnage is still good– probably more than half of it. We are going to work closely with the food banks and food rescue groups.... We'll have a refrigerated semi-truck on site, so we can load food directly into cold storage and get it out for distribution," said Chester Phillips, the Director of Compost Cats.
The Environmental Protection Agency awarded a $91,000 grant to the Compost Cats to help run the center and pay 8 student employees, on land owned by Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District 35. The center will be an outdoor operation with tractors, front loaders, temporary buildings and a scale station.
Community supporters say the project is great on many levels.
“It’s a quadruple bottom line, says Michael McDonald, CEO of the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona.
“It’s good for the economy, whether it’s producers or students getting green jobs. It’s good for nutritional health – 80 percent of our families have poor nutrition related to diet, so we’re working to improve nutrition with fresh produce. Environmental health clearly gets better, with less waste. The fourth bottom line is relationship health. It’s neighbors helping neighbors.”
The Compost Cats themselves – UA students – say the combination of diverting food to families in need, as well as helping communities become more sustainable and greener is important to them.
“It’s important to me to try and divert as much food that would be in landfills to families, and that we’re not consuming so much land just throwing away our trash,” said Natalia Guzman-Vergil, a UA junior and Compost Cat.
“And I’m really passionate about composting because I’m learning the science behind it, and I care about finding all these alternatives to help people understand there are ways for us in our community to make a difference.”
The group has been under the umbrella of Cooperative Extension for about a year, something Phillips says is a good fit.
“We're proud to be part of Cooperative Extension. That mission is a more community-connected university – of connecting the knowledge, the research, the expertise of the university outward into the wider community, and also acknowledging there's a lot of expertise out in the wider community that we can learn from...that's our M.O...that's why we're a good fit for extension.”