Fungi: Food never really goes bad, does it?
by JOEL BANNER BAIRD, Free Press Staff Writer8:55 a.m. EDT June 15, 2015
COLCHESTER – What is a meal without a lot of talk about rot?
Meager, if you’re tagging along with Middlesex-based naturalist Mike Ather.
Last weekend, during a tour of edible and medicinal plants near the banks of the Winooski River, it became clear that Ather promotes a much broader view of planetary health than salads, decoctions and tonics.
The walk at Macrae Farm Park went slowly, except through the mosquito-dense patches.Ather paused while munching a nettle.
He bade us to consider, a few centimeters beneath our feet, the billions of threads of fungi — fungal hyphae — that knit together acres and acres of land.
“They convey information between plants and respond to their calls for nutrients,” Ather said. “They respond to pressure from your feet. They’ve convinced me that there’s sentience in nature.”
Tend to the needs of fungi, and you participate in a rich, planetary symbiosis, he mused.
Then Ather became practical: “If there’s any one thing that you can do to help heal the Earth, it’s to add compost to the soil.”
But that course of action might require us to break some ingrained habits.
Ather, a Master Composter certified through University of Vermont Extension, is one of dozens of people in the state who are determined to show us the merits — and the appeal — of getting our hands just a little bit dirtier.
Our distant ancestors tossed away a gnawed bone, corn cob or melon rind, confident that another creatures would eventually scarf it up.
Today, most kitchen scraps in urban and suburban Vermont follow what we’ve come to appreciate as a tidier path, from plastic bag to garbage truck to landfill.
That modern model might be convenient, but it is seriously flawed, experts have been telling us for decades.
They have a point. When we bury our leftovers, we place them beyond the reach of billions of organisms that would gladly consume the stuff and enrich our topsoil in the bargain.
Now, a growing body of Vermonters are urging us to look more closely and more kindly at what we decline to eat.
They’re racing the clock to boost our appreciation of slops.
What’s the rush?
The Vermont Universal Recycling and Composting Law (Act 148) enacted last year, mandates a gradual phase-out of food scraps from landfills.
Large, institutional kitchens are already on track. In 2020, the ban on food scraps in landfills will extend to every Vermont household.
Heather Carrington, who coordinates the state’s 12-year-old Master Composter program, said the regulatory timeline has resulted in a “huge boost” in enrollment, which now runs well over 100 enrollments per year.
Participants learn the hands-on basics of a heap’s biochemistry, thermodynamics and invertebrate biology.
Master Composters are also required to log volunteer hours with community gardens, schools or other avenues of outreach.
Some volunteers operate the program’s helpline, which takes calls 9 a.m. to noon on weekdays. They advise folks on the do’s and don’ts of a healthy compost, Carrington said, as well as the fundamentals of what she calls “a hierarchy of food recovery.”
She refers beginners to an inverted-pyramid graphic from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The prevention of food waste ranks as the first priority, followed by the distribution of unspoiled food to people in need.
One tomato, two tomato
Nearly a third of all tomatoes sold in the U.S. go to waste, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Annually, that loss represents about $2.3 billion per year in wasted nutrients, water and energy.
Diverting food to livestock is next.
Composting shares the following tier with the extraction of energy (such as biofuels) from food stocks — although many people have argued that vermiculture, or composting with worms — qualifies as animal husbandry.
Mike Ather hears that argument from former students in his vermiculture workshops.
“They’ll tell me that they’ve become sort of like pets,” Ather said. “They’ll tell me, ‘I always feel bad when I neglect my worms,’ or ‘I don’t spend enough time with them.'”
For the record, Ather advocates giving worms ample quality-time, without humans.
Households with no interest in the stewardship of worms, fungi and other organisms, too, must hew to the new composting law.
Addressing those qualms, Chittenden Solid Waste District is ramping up for curbside pickup of scraps. CSWD is responsible for managing the cast-offs in the county.
Tons of the stuff is already hauled to the district’s industrial-sized compost operation, Green Mountain Compost in Williston.
“Waste” is hardly the word for the finished soil amendment, says CSWD spokeswoman Clare Innes: “Here, we think of ‘waste’ as a design flaw.”
The district’s newly formed volunteer outreach team, Waste Warriors, is taking the message to the public.
Much of the “Warriors” work takes place at special events, where they alert folks to the option, and the benefits, of jettisoning unwanted French fries, hot dogs and the like into a separate, labeled bins for foodstuff.
Post-edible: A poster from the Chittenden Solid Waste District indicates the variety of foodstuffs and related products that can be composted. (Photo: Courtesy CSWD)
As Act 148 continues to roll out, we can expect to see more such bins, Innes said.
“Unless you have a container right then and there, people tend not to recycle,” she added.
“People go to great effort to get something. But when it comes to getting rid of it — they tend to just want to get rid of it quickly.”
Our collective toss-away behavior contributes to the high cost of transporting and landfilling food scraps.
Those scraps, coupled with yard waste and other organic material, account for 28 percent of Vermont’s residential landfill freight by weight, according to a 2013 study by the Agency of Natural Resources.
It’s the single largest component in our “waste” stream. Paper comes in second, at 22 percent.
But another part of Act 148 might move that needle back a notch or two: Haulers will increasingly bill customers on a pay-by-weight basis for what’s in those garbage bags.
Are there carrots as well as sticks in the responsible kitchen?
A service-learning oriented Food Systems course at University of Vermont, taught last semester by geography professor Cheryl Morse, struggled with the question.
Gradually, through public surveys, the class zeroed in on Vermonters’ allegiance to their surroundings.
“Pretty much everyone in Vermont agrees that we have a beautiful landscape, and we want to preserve that landscape,” Morse said. “Plus, we have a strong tradition of preservation.”
The class found significant differences in how universal composting might play out in urban, suburban and rural communities.
The professor offered up one textbook example.
“Where I live, in Underhill, I have to consider bears, foxes, coyotes and my own dogs,” Morse said.
A graduate student in the class, Serge Wiltshire, assessed the stink-factor to be significant. People he spoke with generally associated food scraps with garbage bags and ripe odors.
Wiltshire weighed with appeal of separate, sealed containers that would be whisked away by curbside haulers: “In some ways, it’s less gross than throwing the food scraps in your trash.”
The class created a plucky mascot to promote composting in the form of “Scrappy,” an apple core, and a cheeky, bumper-sticker-ready motto: “Give a Scrap.”
Ramping up: Scrappy, a digital mascot for improved food disposal, catches air aboard an ATV in this vignette created by a spring-semester class in Food Systems at University of Vermont. (Photo: COURTESY WILLIAM WILTSHIRE)
Playful exposure at an even earlier age to Vermont’s shifting scrap landscape works wonders, asserts Bethany Yon, a researcher at UVM’s Department of Nutrition and Food Services.
This school year, Yon zoomed in on cafeteria behavior in several schools around the state, including Malletts Bay School in Colchester.
“It’s important to watch what people are not eating, and how they are choosing what they eat,” Yon said.
“From there, you can talk with students about where the food is going if they don’t eat it. Is it going to the food shelf?”
Elementary-school kids are attentive to the connection between food choice and leftovers, Yon observed. Middle-schoolers tend to become distracted by other social phenomena.
She noted that kindergartners didn’t easily differentiate between food and packaging: “They’ll see a Ziplock bag with crackers, and they just see crackers.
“Grade school is a good age. The process can become fun. And some kids have gardens at home. They feed pigs and chickens, and they end up with dirt. They understand that cycle.”
Younger students also tend to take food-sorting lessons home to parents, Yon said, “and then hopefully it just becomes automatic — a normal routine, like putting on a seat belt.”
Even in the ideal demographic, she encountered hiccups.
“It was not business as usual in the cafeteria when we started,” Yon said. “It was a little chaotic. And now it works like clockwork.
“Change is hard for everyone,” she continued. “Part of that requires assuring people that in time, the process will smooth out. It helps that we’re a foodie state.”
A young student at the Bellwether School in Williston dumps a bucket of food scraps and paper towels into a compost bin outside the school. (Photo: FREE PRESS FILE)
A can of worms
Back in a Colchester field, eyeing an immature burdock (edible root), Mike Ather pondered composting’s learning curve.
The increased availability of electron microscopes to universities since the 1990s has worked wonders, he said, in dissolving perceived boundaries between who we are, what we eat, and the animated process of decay.
Still, Ather said, practical challenges remain.
“If everyone is forced to compost, there will be people really good at, and people really bad at it — and the vermin population is going to skyrocket if they don’t do it right, if they don’t actually spend some time managing it,” he said.
Ather’s own case in point: Several years ago, a supplier of relatively docile red wriggler composting worms tossed a handful of voracious India blue worms in the shipping package as a novelty “bonus.”
Upon arrival to Vermont, the India blues promptly escaped the confines of their bin and vanished.
“For the next three years, every spring, our front yard looked like a World War I battlefield,” Ather said.
“These things can devastate anything,” he continued. “Luckily we got a couple of cold winters, that I think finally killed them all off.
“You don’t know sometimes, what you’re opening up, once you bring these worms in.”