Ever since Senate Bill 1383 took effect earlier this year, local governments and organizations across California have been scrambling to develop strategies to recycle organic waste. Schools are no exception. As I discussed in my February blog, SB 1383 requires our state to reduce organic waste disposal by 75% and increase edible food recovery by 20% by 2025 (relative to 2014 levels). California schools and universities generate over 560,000 tons of waste per year according to CalRecycle. While implementing programs to reduce and recycle waste, schools are in a unique position to teach youth about a wide variety of environmental topics including resource conservation, composting, and food rescue.
A good way for schools to start developing a waste handling strategy is to conduct a waste audit. The main goal is to characterize the type, quantity, and source of materials being discarded. An audit is often part of a more comprehensive assessment to evaluate school district policies and procedures that affect waste generation. In 2014, CalRecycle performed a waste characterization study using 45 samples from K-12 schools. The study showed that the largest components of the waste stream were organics (50.8%), paper (31.4%), and plastic (12.7%). The organics category included food, plant material, and some textiles.
I recently helped Cassidy Furnari, the Upland School District Farm to School Program Manager, conduct a lunchtime cafeteria waste audit at Upland High School. The Farm to School Program is part of the Nutrition Services Department, which is concerned about food waste and cost. Cassidy and I recruited members of the school garden club, GRO (Grow Recycle Organize), to participate in the audit to empower them to promote change on campus. The students are currently preparing to present their results at an upcoming Board of Education meeting.
The first step we took in planning our waste audit was to write a brief project plan. To keep the project manageable, we decided to perform an audit during a typical 30-minute lunch period. Upland High School has over 3000 students who all eat at the same time. Only seniors are allowed to leave campus during lunch.
To avoid influencing student behavior, we didn't make any major changes to the meal service or trash disposal. Rather than asking students to sort their own waste, we placed distinctive purple liners inside existing trash containers shortly before the lunch period. The week before the audit we counted over 90 trash containers in the areas where students eat lunch.
During the planning process, we informed and consulted with the school administration, cafeteria staff, custodial staff, and parents of the garden club members. We also asked for help from our friends at the Community Composting for Green Spaces Grant Program to tap into their experience with waste audits.
To design our data collection sheets, we considered what questions we wanted to answer. What is the total weight of the waste? How much of the waste is food, paper, plastic, aluminum, and glass? How much can be composted or recycled? How much uneaten cafeteria food can be recovered? By answering these questions and others, we can help the Nutrition Services Department make more sustainable and economical food purchasing and packaging decisions.
After a month of planning, the big day of the waste audit finally arrived on March 9th. Our team consisted of nine people from Upland Farm to School and Community Composting for Green Spaces. Our first tasks were placing purple bags in the trash receptacles and setting up a staging area to sort the waste. Before we knew it, the lunch period had come and gone, and the hard work of collecting the bags and sorting the waste began. Sorting was much messier and more tedious than I had expected, especially since we had over 30 waste categories. The garden club members joined us after school to help count, weigh, and record the items in different waste categories. We eventually finished tallying the results and cleaning up six hours after we started. It was a long day!
What did we learn from our waste audit? Although we're still analyzing the results, we've already answered our initial questions. The total waste generated in a single lunch period was 370 lbs. The two largest types of waste material by weight were food (63%) and paper (19%), and more than 80% of the waste was compostable or recyclable. Students threw away over 200 pieces of uneaten whole fruit and 40 unopened cartons of milk, which potentially could have been recovered. Every question we answer gives rise to new questions and new ways to examine the data. We're already thinking about performing a waste audit at an elementary school to see how the waste profile compares.
I hope this story inspires you to support waste reduction, recycling, and recovery efforts in your local schools. Stay tuned for an update on my journey into school waste auditing in a future blog!
 CalRecycle. School Waste Reduction Programs. https://calrecycle.ca.gov/recycle/schools
 CalRecycle. School Waste Composition. https://calrecycle.ca.gov/recycle/schools/composition
I can't believe I've been working part-time as the UCCE San Bernardino Environmental Education Coordinator for six months already! As the saying goes, “time flies when you're having fun”. I was having so much fun that I started a second part-time position as the Farm to School Program Assistant for the Upland Unified School District (UUSD) at the end of January. Through these two positions, I hope to build stronger partnerships between UCCE and local schools.
In this month's blog, I want to introduce you to the UUSD Farm to School Program. The program is part of the Nutrition Services Department. Cassidy Furnari, the Program Manager, has been working with UUSD for over three years during which she's made tremendous progress building school gardens and providing hands-on learning opportunities. The district has 14 schools, 11 of which have gardens for the students. By the end of this school year, all schools will have gardens.
Cassidy started as an intern when she was completing her Master of Science degree in Regenerative Studies at Cal Poly Pomona. I first became acquainted with Cassidy when I served with FoodCorps at Phelan Elementary and two members of my cohort served at Upland schools. UUSD still supports two FoodCorps service members.
Rather than using a cookie-cutter approach, Cassidy aims to customize each school garden to match the school community and the school's goals and resources. Before doing anything else, she gets to know the entire school community—the administrators, staff, teachers, students, and parents—because she believes the most successful gardens come from community ideas. The more the community is included in the garden, the more sustainable it will be. Both community volunteers and the UUSD Maintenance and Operations Team are instrumental in building the gardens and bringing them to life.
Once the garden is up and running, the Farm to School Program grows organic seasonal produce for students and their families. All UUSD schools are registered as community food producers; so everything grown in the gardens can be served to students in the cafeterias. Cassidy is most excited about the cafeteria taste tests because they help students connect with the food being grown. One example was an eggplant dip taste test at Upland High School; the eggplant, garlic, onion, basil, and tomatoes used to make the dip were all grown on site. At Foothill Knolls STEM Academy, garden basil was turned into pesto for a taste test. Cassidy wants to show the students that their opinion matters and will be reflected in the cafeteria menu. Before the COVID pandemic, the cafeteria staff also added school-grown produce such as broccoli, radishes, carrots, and citrus to the salad bar. When schools shut down during COVID, produce bags containing lettuce, cabbage, herbs, citrus, and other fruits and vegetables were distributed to school families.
The Farm to School Program also provides a space for community and family education and engagement. Social media posts on YouTube and Instagram include cooking demonstrations and a recap of the week's activities. The program plans to make lessons and curriculum available to the school community through its website. In partnership with UUSD Support Services, the program will offer a stress management and eating course in the next month.
Planning for sustainability is critical to the continued success of Upland's Farm to School Program. This is accomplished by giving students and teachers agency over garden spaces and holding volunteer days to connect school communities with their gardens. The longer term plan is to train interested teachers to take care of the gardens and integrate them into their lessons. Garden sites are built for sustainability by completely removing the sod, laying down landscape fabric and substrate such as decomposed granite, and adding an extra layer of fabric underneath the garden beds.
Another aspect of sustainability is funding. Over the years, Cassidy has become a prolific grant writer. Thanks to her efforts, the UUSD Farm to School Program has received grants from the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture), CDFA (California Department of Food and Agriculture), Sprouts, Whole Foods, Lowe's, Action for Healthy Kids, Walmart, and California Fertilizer Foundation.
I'm proud to be associated with such a strong and vibrant Farm to School Program and believe it's the perfect complement to my work at UCCE. I look forward to spending sunny days in school gardens with curious and energetic students. This is what makes my heart sing. I hope you too find your happy place in the garden!
As a UC Cooperative Extension Master Gardener and UC ANR employee, I am fortunate to have many opportunities to partner with amazing farmers, gardeners, and educators. I am particularly in awe of educators who fully integrate outdoor spaces into their teaching. One of these educators is Jackie Lacey, the Environmental Education Resource Teacher at Kimbark Elementary School. She teaches a combination of Next Generation Science Standards and environmental concepts to all classes from TK (transitional kindergarten) through sixth grade. Jackie has been in her current position for 12 years and teaching at Kimbark for 26 years. Even after all this time, she maintains her enthusiasm for creating engaging, hands-on projects for her students.
Kimbark Elementary is a Technology and Environmental Science Magnet School in the rural community of Devore, about 12 miles northwest of downtown San Bernardino. When I visited the school in early November, the expansive grounds were still green and shaded by a variety of mature trees. The school has drought-tolerant, vegetable, and native plant gardens, and Jackie's classroom is home to a menagerie of animals including fish, snakes, a rabbit, and a tortoise. No wonder the students think Jackie's the “fun teacher”!
When I asked Jackie how she approaches environmental education, she said she uses a conservationist approach. She wants students to go out and experience nature while remembering to conserve resources for future generations. To inspire a love for nature, Jackie takes her students outside as much as possible. She summed it up this way: “I feel like the best way for kids to learn about the environment is by getting out there and getting dirty.”
At Halloween time, her students created “trash-o-lanterns” by filling pumpkins grown in the vegetable garden with trash and burying them in the ground. Around Earth Day in April, they'll dig them up to see what happens. Pumpkins and other organic materials will decompose while plastics and inorganic materials will remain intact. Jackie believes this type of experiential learning will help her students understand the importance of recycling. She wants kids to know they have the power to make changes and choices every day.
Continuing the recycling theme, Jackie created a “trash graph” with the kindergarten classes. She gave the students gloves and helped them pick up all the trash on the playground. Back in the classroom, they dumped the trash on the floor and sorted it into categories including masks, plastic bottles, food wrappers, and pencils. Then they tallied the number of items in each category and made a bar graph. The students discovered that the categories with the largest number of items were wrappers and masks. Jackie used this as a teachable moment to discuss how waste is damaging the environment and how it can be recycled.
Jackie loves using the garden to teach. It's not just about planting, maintaining, pulling weeds, and watering. It's about becoming an investigator. When Jackie and her students go out in the garden, they look for signs of animal habitat and talk about life cycles and food chains. The pumpkin patch is a great place to observe the life cycle of a plant from seed to vine to blossom to pumpkin and back to seed. The students even found a black widow spider living in a pumpkin and preying on insects—an example of a food chain.
Jackie uses produce grown in the garden as the basis for nutrition and cooking lessons, such as making bread from zucchini or salsa from tomatoes and peppers. These lessons give her students the chance to try new foods, and they are more likely to eat foods they've helped grow.
When I asked Jackie how she includes the animals in her classroom in her teaching, she replied that she uses them to talk about the different types of animals and their adaptations. She noted, “There's nothing better to teach about reptiles than to bring out one of the snakes or to go hang out in the back area with our tortoise.” The students examine the underside of a snake and learn how its scales help it slither along the ground. They discuss the functions of the fur and claws of a rabbit and the fins and gills of a fish. Many students have never had pets at home; so caring for animals in the classroom teaches them responsibility and respect for living creatures.
What Jackie likes most about her job is working with all students in the school continually over the years. She says that every day is completely different, and she never knows what's going to happen. While she has set lesson plans, she's always willing to change them to accommodate the students and the circumstances. In the time of COVID-19, Jackie especially enjoys spending time outdoors with the kids, watching them run around and have fun.
The San Bernardino Master Gardeners are collaborating with Jackie and Kimbark Elementary to design a portion of the native plant garden and rehabilitate the vegetable garden beds with gopher-proofing, soil, and compost. By partnering with UCCE San Bernardino, Jackie hopes to gain knowledge and improve her program by asking questions, sharing ideas, and watching Master Gardeners at work.
To learn more about the Kimbark's Environmental Education Program, I invite you to attend the upcoming virtual School and Community Garden Collaborative Workshop on Saturday, January 29, from 9 to 11:30 am. Jackie will give a presentation about “Engaging 21st Century Students with Environmental Education”. We will have a great lineup of speakers followed by a breakout session to share feedback and resources. Register on the Master Gardener website using this link. Start the new year with fresh ideas and inspiration from your fellow gardeners!
Debbie Schnur, UCCE San Bernardino County Master Gardener and Community Education Specialist
When I lived in Minnesota, fall was my least favorite time of year. It wasn't that I didn't appreciate the changing colors of the leaves or the crisp fall air. I just dreaded the coming winter with its barrage of snowstorms and minus 30 degree wind chills. By the time December arrived, the sun set at 4:30 pm, and I felt like I was living in constant twilight.
Since I moved to southern California, I actually look forward to fall and the changes the season brings to the inland valleys–strong Santa Ana winds, refreshing rains, cooler days and even cooler nights, and leaves gradually turning subtle shades of brown, gold, and orange. Fall actually feels like a relief from the long, hot, dry summer. It's time to plant lettuce, spinach, peas, radishes, carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower once again, and worry less about watering and maintenance.
One thing I've been thinking about a lot lately is composting. When I was a FoodCorps service member at Phelan Elementary, my students used to call me “Ms. Debbie the Garden Lady”. Now I'm becoming known as “Ms. Debbie the Compost Lady”! Not everyone is as excited as I am about composting, but I can't think of a better way to build community while building soil. In October, I gave an online presentation for the San Bernardino Master Gardeners titled “Composting for School and Community Gardens”. If you missed it, you can watch the video on the UCCE San Bernardino YouTube channel. The presentation covers the basics of composting and development of the Root 66 Community Garden composting systems.
The main difference between backyard composting and school and community composting is scale. More compost means a bigger composting system and more people to manage it. As stated in the Institute for Local Self-Reliance report, Community Composting Done Right, “the distinguishing feature of community composting is retaining organic materials as a community asset and scaling systems to meet the needs of a self-defined community while engaging, empowering, and educating the community.”
Although larger scale composting requires additional planning and organization, it can be a tremendously rewarding project for everyone involved. The main steps to begin composting include setting goals, identifying a team, developing a management plan, selecting and designing a site, and choosing a system. Once composting is underway, the focus shifts to collecting and managing the materials and managing the process and site. Connecting with experienced composters to share best practices will increase your chances of success. There's a wealth of composting expertise in the Inland Empire!
You may be wondering if it's a good idea to start composting in the fall or winter, and the answer is yes. Any time is a good time. As temperatures dip, simply insulate your compost pile with browns such as mulch or leaves to keep the interior warm. You can also cover the pile with a tarp and turn it less often (if at all). The decomposition process may slow down but will continue throughout the winter.
A new composting project I want to highlight is the Green Ambassadors program at Captain Leland F. Norton Elementary School in San Bernardino. The principal, Elizabeth Cochrane-Benoit, and I met during Master Gardener training and worked together to build the composting system at the Root 66 Garden this past year. Norton Elementary has been recognized as a 2021 California Green Ribbon School at the Silver level and is aiming to reach the Green Achievers level. The Green Ribbon Schools Awards Program honors achievement in reducing environmental impact, improving health and wellness, and providing effective environmental education.
Sixth grade students in the Green Ambassadors program are learning how to audit their cafeteria waste and sort it into recycling, compost, and trash bins. Once they've mastered the process, they'll teach it to the rest of the school. The Community Composting for Green Spaces program (funded by CalRecycle) will help transfer the food waste in the compost bins to local gardens for composting. At a recent lunchtime audit, the fourth and sixth grade classes filled a 17-gallon container with uneaten food. I can't wait to see how much waste Norton Elementary teachers and students divert from landfills in the coming months!
What gardening and environmental projects do you have planned this fall and winter? Do you need support? If so, contact me at dschnur@ucanr. Happy composting!
As the seasons change, I'm excited to plant my fall garden and start my new part-time position as the Environmental Education Coordinator for UCCE San Bernardino County. I'll be working an average of eight hours a week, reporting to Maggie O'Neill, our amazing Master Gardener Coordinator. Working together, our aim is to expand our reach to the public and provide greater support for Master Gardeners. One of my first duties is launching this blog to keep you informed of our environmental education activities. Since San Bernardino is the largest county by area in the United States, I'll need your help to get up to speed on what's happening in our school gardens. Please don't be shy about reaching out to me for assistance with your projects!
Another one of my responsibilities is to facilitate the connection between Master Gardeners and school gardens. I will support Master Gardeners to help set up or revitalize gardens, work with teachers to help develop student garden education, teach gardening classes to parent groups and teachers, provide technical assistance to garden caretakers, and connect schools with local community gardens and food systems.
I also plan to develop a toolkit of practices and procedures for Master Gardeners to follow when providing environmental education for K-12 classrooms. The toolkit, which will be posted in VMS, will include curriculum links, learning modules, hands-on training examples, and more. The main role of Master Gardeners in school environmental education is to “train the trainer”—train teachers to work directly with students. To complement this effort, I will develop web pages containing resources for school garden management specifically for K-12 administrators, teachers, and staff. These pages will be added to the UCCE San Bernardino County and Master Gardeners of San Bernardino County websites.
You may have already noticed some upgrades to our Master Gardener website. Maggie and I have been updating, adding, and reorganizing content to make the site more user-friendly and share more research-based information with the public. To start, we added two new items to the left-hand navigation menu: Newsletters and Recent Presentations. Visitors to our website can now easily view and download our monthly newsletters and our latest online class presentations. In the near future, we plan to add a link to request help with school gardens. We welcome your ideas for additional improvements.
Now that I've given you a brief overview of my initial assignments, I'd like to introduce myself. I moved to southern California from Minnesota two years ago and completed my Master Gardener training in March 2021. I grew up on Long Island in a suburb of New York City, where my parents devoted much time and attention to gardening and landscaping. That's where my interest in gardening began. Moving around the country, I took my love of plants with me to Chicago, Phoenix, back to Chicago, Minneapolis, Houston, back to Minneapolis, and finally to California. I even lived in Thailand for a year. I guess you can say I'm a nomad at heart.
Long story short, I began my career in biomedical engineering, transitioned to mechanical engineering, and made a major pivot to public health about 5 years ago. After graduating with a Master of Public Health from the University of Minnesota, I moved to California to be closer to my daughter, escape the Minnesota winters, and serve with FoodCorps (part of the AmeriCorps network) at Phelan Elementary School for the 2019-2020 school year.
At Phelan Elementary, I experienced firsthand the transformational power that gardening and nutrition education can have on an entire school community. With help from over 75 volunteers including teachers, staff, students, and families, the Phelan community transformed the school garden and greenhouse from a field of weeds to a place of pride. Over the fall and winter, we grew broccoli, cauliflower cabbage, carrots, radishes, onions, lettuce, spinach, kale, and herbs. As the months passed, more and more students came to explore the garden during recess. Teachers requested space to conduct experiments. Students joined the after-school Sprout Scouts garden club. Parents and high school students pitched in to maintain the garden and help with lessons.
The first lesson I taught was “Garden Explorations”, which included a garden hunt matching game. I remember the joy on the kids' faces as they raced around with their partners, searching for items in the garden that corresponded to the pictures on their cards. As an outdoor classroom, school gardens can instill appreciation and respect for nature, improve social skills and teamwork, and literally bring academic concepts to life.
School gardens and nutrition education can also positively impact kids' eating habits. Phelan students eagerly awaited the monthly cafeteria taste tests where they were able to try a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables (sometimes for the first time) and vote for their favorites. Older students who served as Cafeteria Captains assisted with taste tests by handing out food samples, making announcements, and tallying votes.
Another incentive to promote healthier food choices was the Taste Bud Ticket program. At the start of every lunch period, I announced the color of the day based on the food served in the cafeteria. (All students in the district were eligible for free lunch.) Then I distributed taste bud tickets to students eating healthy foods of that color. Before heading out to the playground, students wrote their names on the tickets and dropped them in a box. At the end of the week, I drew two tickets from the box and invited the winners to arrange time in the garden with a friend. Nearly all the winners took advantage of this opportunity and brought more than one friend!
Now that schools have returned to in-person learning, I'm excited to begin working with school employees and Master Gardeners to create environmental and gardening education programs and resources. If you need assistance, feel free to contact me at email@example.com. Happy fall gardening!