MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — It was tough to tell who was squirming more: senior Alex Walsh, of Dennis Township, or the compost-covered worms she held in her hand.

Walsh and fellow senior Kelsey Reardon, of Cape May Court House, stood in a greenhouse outside Middle Township High School to talk about their environmental science class’s project to collect leftover food from the cafeteria and turn it into fertilizer with the help of 1,000 red wigglers.

The process is called vermicomposting, and teacher John King said it’s a way to promote sustainability by turning waste into something useful.

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“It’s a cool way to get the whole building involved,” he said.

Since starting the project a few months ago, the class has actually collected more vegetables than the worms can break down, and there are bags of extra greens sitting in the greenhouse. That has been a lesson about food waste in and of itself.

The National Resources Defense Council released a report in August that found that about 40 percent of all food in the U.S. goes uneaten. Some plants rot in the fields, some food is discarded at the supermarket, and much of it is thrown out by restaurants and in homes.

In October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report estimating that food wasted at the retail and consumer level totalled more than $165 billion in 2008. That represents about 273 pounds of food per person, per year, worth about $390 per person.

The Middle school district contracts with Chartwells School Dining Services for its cafeteria services. Spokeswoman Karen Dittrich said the company has its own program to limit waste when producing food, tracking how much gets thrown out in order to measure progress toward reducing waste.

Not all human food makes for good worm food, however. Worms don’t want meat, citrus fruits, or even a lot of dressing on salad, King said, but they will readily work through vegetables. The class has collected those plants by distributing specific buckets labeled with instructions on what should be scraped into them.

That food is then dumped into dark tupperware containers, where the worms break down the uneaten lettuce and broccoli into worm castings — i.e., worm manure — resulting in a nutrient-rich organic fertilizer.

“They’re just machines,” said King. “They’re non-stop, 24 hours, breaking down stuff.”

King’s classes have been using the castings to create mini-ecosystems using soda bottles, called eco-columns. Creating a cylinder with different layers, the compost goes on top and releases nutrients to the soil below, which filters water that then drops to an aquatic habitat underneath.

In addition to their class work on the subject, Walsh and Reardon will be examining the worm waste as their project for the upcoming school science fair. They will compare the vermicompost to generic fertilizer from a garden store.

“It will be interesting to see the different effects each has on the environment,” said Reardon, who hypothesized that the worm manure would be more ecologically friendly.

The teens were less interested in holding the worms and their waste in their hands. As they grimaced, King noted the obvious.

“I think they all agree it’s sort of gross,” he said.

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