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Food (Scraps) For Thought

Food (Scraps) for ThoughtBy Tara Sepulveda, October 15, 2018

Oklahoma State University Dining Services does more than just feed students; it partners with local farmers to reduce food waste by composting. Composting helps minimize the release of greenhouse gases into the environment while providing valuable nutrients to the soil. This act, along with buying local produce, is one of the many ways OSU is taking steps to become more sustainable.

The UDS food composting program at OSU started in 2013 when OSU Sustainability Coordinator, Ilda Hershey, approached vendors at the Stillwater Farmers Market to see if any would be interested in taking produce scraps from campus kitchens to create compost.

Initially, Tom Stevens, an OSU alumnus and former agronomy department staff member, collected scraps from the Student Union and Scott-Parker-Wentz kitchens, while Jeff Vitale, assistant professor from the department of agricultural economics, collected from Kerr-Drummond. Today, Olen Thomas, a Stillwater resident and OSU alumnus, collects from Kerr-Drummond.

“You can’t have too much compost,” Thomas said.

He and his wife have been composting for the last 30 years, five of those with OSU.

“If you need compost, you can’t beat it,” Thomas said about collaborating with UDS.

Kerr-Drummond has three dining options and a market, which are among the most popular on campus.

“Two or three cases of strawberries or cantaloupes easily sell within an hour or an hour and a half,” said Reni Nguyen, Kerr-Drummond dining assistant manager.

Thomas retrieves produce scraps from Kerr-Drummond three times per week in a 48-gallon wheeled cart, which diverts an average of 438 pounds of waste per week from landfills.

Thomas collects dry leaves from his own backyard.“To have nutrient-rich compost, you need fresh material, which is what you get from the produce scraps, and you need dry material, like dry leaves,” Thomas said.

To begin the composting process, he first chops up the scraps, then mixes them with a slightly decomposed pile of compost.

“You need the bacteria and other organisms, which are present in the compost, to help break down the food scraps faster,” Thomas said.

After a few days, he aerates the compost pile by mixing it, which allows organisms to grow. Thomas also keeps the pile moist.

“Air and moisture allow bacteria to flourish,” Thomas said.

Thomas and his wife have six gardens and tend to their compost daily.

“You have to put in a little bit of work, but we like it,” Thomas said.

After the compost is complete, they lay a half-inch layer on the soil in their gardens to add nutrients and help lock in moisture.

In addition to diverting food waste from the landfill by giving it to local farmers, UDS supports Oklahoma farmers, ranchers and producers with local food purchases. More than 40 percent of the food and beverage that OSU purchases is locally sourced.

“We love to support our farmers around here, especially by buying from them,” Nguyen said. 

OSU’s sustainable efforts in food composting would not be possible without the cooperation of local farmers. Material is currently offered for pickup at one campus kitchen location; however, UDS hopes to expand pickup locations as more people become interested. If you are interested in collecting food scraps or would like more information, please email


Kerr-Drummond kitchen staff fill cart with produce scraps.

Kerr-Drummond kitchen staff fill carts with produce scraps.

Thomas loads cart filled with food scraps onto his truck to transport to his gardens.

Thomas loads cart filled with food scraps onto his truck to transport to his gardens.

Thomas chops the scraps to mix with previous compost.

Thomas chops the scraps to mix with previous compost.