Volunteer group with the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma gets dirty to save money and feed families 

Last year, the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma recycled six tons of cardboard and 500 pounds of shrink-wrap each month, but still spent $28,000 on trash removal for the year, said Bruce Edwards, director of the food bank's Urban Harvest program.

Volunteer Benefits
Tracking Compost

But Edwards hopes a new program will change that. The food bank recently began a composting program, called Red Dirt Soil Builders, which can decrease waste by 30 to 50 percent.

And with just one dollar funding seven meals, any money the organization can save makes a big impact, Edwards said.

"That $28,000 multiplied by seven would have been 196,000 meals," he said.

The composting effort is part of the Urban Harvest program, which Edwards calls the "sustainable arm" of the organization. Urban Harvest works with community gardens in Oklahoma City and rural areas, helping them direct their unsold produce to local food banks or pantries. Urban Harvest also teaches home gardening techniques and maintains a demonstration/production garden at the food bank's OKC office. Edwards said Urban Harvest works with 28 gardens statewide, and there are 10 more planned for next spring.

Urban Harvest has been composting for more than five years, but because there was only one full-time and one part-time employee, the organization couldn't devote as much effort as it wanted. And while the food bank already worked with volunteers, it didn't seem fair to ask unsuspecting workers to do the dirty work associated with composting, Edwards said.

"This dedicated group will be ready to get dirty, be available to open packaging, which is time consuming, so that we can capture bad produce that we normally did not have time for," he said.

Volunteers meet from 9 a.m. to noon every Saturday at the food bank, 3355 S. Purdue, with the first hour focusing on education, and the remaining time designated for hands-on work in the garden. Volunteers who work 50 hours or more can take home some of the compost when it's ready, and the bank is developing a curriculum where volunteers will receive designation at various stages of achievement. The food bank will sell some of the worm compost to the public in an effort to help fund the Urban Harvest program.

Volunteer Benefits
While a program like this provides obvious economic benefits for the nonprofit, it also benefits volunteers, said volunteer Jerry Newhouse.

"Nowadays, it seems like there's an awful lot of people who may not be able to give money, but they can give some time, and this is a really good way to do it," Newhouse said. Newhouse worked at the food bank several years ago as a volunteer with the AmeriCorps VISTA program and was drawn back to the program because of the hands-on opportunity to learn something.

"It's absolutely critical that people learn, get back in touch with their roots, literally and figuratively, and this was a really good opportunity to learn how to do that," he said.

At the first meeting in November 2009, 20 volunteers showed up, and Newhouse said he saw enthusiasm and determination in everyone who participated. Edwards sees a growing awareness about sustainability among the general population and among businesses and organizations.

"We have whole generations of people who don't know how to garden, and people are starting to worry about things like that, and with food shortages and incomes that are dwindling, people are very interested in trying to be self-sustainable," he said.

Sustainability benefits not only individuals and the environment, but also any kind of organization looking to save money, Edwards said.

"I think people everywhere, profit or nonprofit, a lot of people are starting to take a look at where they can make cuts and effect some sort of real change in their overhead," he said.

Tracking Compost
When the food bank decided to initiate the Red Dirt Soil program, it started more closely tracking the amount of produce used for compost and for feeding the worms, Edwards said. Since late October, he added, the food bank composted 16,069 pounds of waste, with a resulting financial impact of around $1,700.

The Red Dirt Soil program is as much about education as it is about helping the food bank, Edwards said. Critical to this education is teaching "soil building" so participants can learn healthier, more sustainable methods of gardening.

"Our negligence and overuse of synthetic fertilizers over the years have taken its toll on our soils. By building up the soils with compost and good soil husbandry, we develop healthy plants," he said.

Eventually, the food bank also hopes to purchase a machine that separates food and liquids from cans and compresses the cans into cubes for recycling. However, a grant or donations would likely be necessary to fund the purchase, Edwards said.

To learn more about Urban Harvest or Red Dirt Soil Builders, contact Edwards at 604-7108 or bedwards@regionalfoodbank.org. "Lea Terry

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Lea Terry

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