These college students recycle

340,000 pounds of waste each year

11/19/2010  |  MELINDA LAW
smart school

Kelly Slade and Taylor Mayo planting butternut squash.


How It All Began

Students at Johnson and Wales University, (JWU) Charlotte Campus are turning in food scraps to grow more food.

It all started two years ago with two recycled backing and pastry buckets in a culinary kitchen. JWU students were fascinated with the chef who was loading smelly food scraps into his car and they wanted to know more. Those two buckets have turned into what JWU Chef Instructor Paul Malcolm calls the “bucket brigade.”


“I was taking home buckets to teach my kids another angle about gardening, and establishing some green ethics at an early age,” says Chef Paul Malcolm. “The burning question is how much has this cost us, me the school? Not one cent! All of the buckets are 100 percent recycled.”

JWU is eliminating more than 340,000 pounds of solid waste per academic year. This is calculated by multiplying 18 kitchens with two labs per day using two five-gallon buckets (per kitchen) with a 135 day academic year. This does not account for special events and summer programming. 

Culinary student Julia Regner says the idea of composting and sustainable agriculture is very foreign to the majority of people. “Even just a couple of years ago, I tried to convince my parents to compost their kitchen scraps and I was met with disgruntle thoughts of trash building up in the yard, the smell and rodents,” she said. “Here at school, we are able to bring the reality of composting to life. There are signs instructing students what can and cannot be composted.” At the end of the day, the contents of the buckets are emptied into designated bins and the buckets are rinsed clean. This is the last of the compost that the students see. That is, until they enter the garden.

Now, step outside.

Composting just wasn’t enough. Being able to not only teach about sustainable agriculture, but also practice it, and harvest from it, is crucial for every student, as well as the community as a whole.

“We are developing leaders at JWU, so our students need to realize that food does not come from the back of a truck,” said Chef Instructor Robert Brener. Brener, along with some students from his New World Cuisine class, wanted to start a garden in order to teach the growing cycle and earth management, however; in urban Uptown Charlotte, dirt was limited. They got creative and built a garden, in a gravel parking lot, on the concrete slab of an old, demolished building, next to train tracks!

There was no water source, so the green group established a sustainable rainwater collection system. First, they needed a structure to collect the rain. They constructed an outdoor classroom with a sloped roof, rain gutter and downspouts. They received 10, 55-gallon plastic syrup barrels donated from a local Pepsi distributor. The students were inspired by a few YouTube videos on the subject and developed a design of their own. Having five barrels connected on both sides of the structure, they hold a total capacity of 550 gallons of rainwater to feed the garden.

So, now they can collect the rain, but how do they keep the individual plants from drying out bucket by bucket? Another clever system: one bucket gets placed inside the other bucket, creating a water reservoir in the space between them. The upper bucket get holes drilled into the bottom for the plastic ‘wicking’ cup, drainage holes, and the fill tube. The plastic cup is slit down the sides with a razor knife to allow water to slowly enter the cup and be absorbed by the soil. The end of the fill tube is cut on a bias allowing the water to flow consistently when filling the water reservoir. We also drill a hole into the side of the lower bucket, just below the upper bucket. This is so any excess water that may enter the planter will exit through the hole and not flood the planters that are growing Bok choy, red and golden beets, peas, lettuces, turnips, Jerusalem artichoke and more.

The Coop

It takes a village to sustain the garden. So, some JWU students formed the Coop, a student club that oversees everything that needs to be maintained, planted and constructed. Coop club member Julia said, “Just the other day my nutrition class came out to the garden to harvest romaine lettuce for sandwiches. As we entered the garden, the magic of the buckets unfolded before the student’s eyes. They could see green leaf after green leaf literally growing out of white five-gallon buckets. The same buckets that held their food scraps, transformed into soil and now was growing their lettuce for lunch.”

Coop president Kelly Slade said, “As up and coming chefs, it is important to have the passion and respect for food. Food that you grow yourself, you gain even greater passion and respect for. When you taste the food that you’ve grown, it is so much more satisfying.”

Master Composter Certification

With JWU’s success in composting in the classrooms and the overwhelming student response, we wanted to take the learning to a new level. We became interested in Mecklenburg County’s Master Composter certification program. To learn more about composting and gardening, 18 faculty are encouraged by the county to participate in hands-on learning at the Little Creek Community Garden on 18th Street, Saturdays, 8 a.m. through noon until 2012. Their certification consists of 40 contact hours that includes refurbishing the Belmont garden and practicing sustainable gardening techniques. This community based garden afforded us an incredible opportunity to develop our composting skills in a practical setting, while at the same time bringing together a challenged community through gardening. Students, faculty and community neighbors tackled the job of clearing out trash, syringes and weeds.

Chef Paul Malcolm said, “We now have students completing internships at the garden, working with community members to grow produce that provides nutritional sustenance, as well as local identity. Now we are working to develop an outdoor classroom that will provide a space that we can conduct cooking classes using the bounty from the garden.” 

The Bees

The garden has added 60,000 new members! Recently, Cloister Honey of Charlotte installed a bee hive. Students are learning about the honey production process and the life cycle of the bee and the bee hive. The bees are pollinating the JWU plants and will provide fresh honey that will be used in the culinary labs. Slade says, “The Coop intends to sell the honey on campus for fundraising to help sustain the garden, but also use some in the labs.”


What the students are learning in the garden will eventually be embedded into a green academic curriculum. Studies will include sustainable agriculture, gardening in the piedmont, soil preparation and pest management. Over the winter, the Coop will design and construct a greenhouse that will extend the growing season, they will house worms for vermi-composting and they will cultivate heirloom and endangered native species such as the white maypop passion fruit. Logs will be inoculated with mushrooms. There are plans for an outdoor kitchen that will include a brick fire pit, bread oven, grill and smoker. All funds have been raised by the Coop, which recevently received a $500 grant from Keep NC Beautiful. 

Johnson and Wales University, founded in 1914, is a nonprofit, private institution. A recognized leader in career education, it offers accredited degrees in business, hospitality, culinary arts, technology and education to more than 16,000 graduate and undergraduate students, representing all 50 states and 98 counties. By integrating academics and professional skills, related work experiences, leadership opportunities and career services, JWU prepares driven students who are seeking a competitive advantage in the global economy. Some 80,000 alumni from 140 countries pursue careers around the world. The university is committed to urban revitalization and thoughtful historic renovation. Through active civic participation and unique learning opportunities, JWU improves the quality of life in its campus communities in Providence, R.I.; North Miami, Fla.; Denver, Colo.; and Charlotte, N.C.


Melinda Law is Communications and Media Relations Manager for Johnson and Wales.Contributors to this article include: Robert Brener, associate instructor; Kelly Slade and Julia Regner. For more information, visit

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