For most people, the moment their scraps fall and join the leftovers at the bottom of the dining commons’ green compost bins marks what they believe to be the end of the line for that food. In reality, like the long journey it took to end up on your plate, this food still has a lot that lays ahead.
There is one group of students who know exactly what happens to this food waste after mealtime: the Associated Students (A.S.) Department of Public Worms (DPW). Founded in 2004 as an offshoot of the A.S. Recycling group, these students are passionate about composting and sustainable agriculture practices. DPW began its partnership with UC Santa Barbara’s residential dining commons in 2012. In 2019, their operations further expanded with the establishment of the DPW Farm on west campus.
“We have a great relationship with the dining commons, and I think a lot of it has to do with consistency,” said A.S. Garden Coordinator Marla Greer. “They know what to expect from us, and they do their best to provide good quality material for our operations. We check in with them quarterly, but the students are really the ones getting the face time with the kitchen staff.”
Every morning, a group of DPW students — referred to as the “worm wranglers” — go to the dining halls to search through those big green bins.
“We go in the mornings, as they’re prepping the food for the day,” Greer said. “We’ve got grabbers and gloves [because] it’s definitely a dirty job to hand-sort and pick out things from their green bins and put them in our bins.”
DPW is particular about what they can take. They primarily collect pre-consumer food waste, meaning food waste that has not been on somebody’s plate. Most of this is the “back of house” byproducts accumulated during meal preparation, like the inedible part of any fruit or vegetable that gets chopped off. They can take any produce items as well as other organic products such as eggshells, coffee grounds and tea bags. They avoid oil-based products (like salad dressings), animal products that could contaminate the pile, “compostable” plastic items and breads, which are technically compostable but take longer than the other items.
After selecting what they need from the dining commons, the worm wranglers load their bounty into the DPW all-electric vehicle that they are trained to drive as they commute between their various sites. The first stop for the food waste is “The Grove,” an on-campus composting site behind Harder Stadium.
Two types of composting occur at The Grove: thermophilic and vermicompost. Thermophilic means that the temperature of the pile rises as microorganisms actively decompose its contents. After the food waste is dumped, a layer of mulch is added on top and the pile is sprayed with water to ensure moisture. The worm wranglers will measure the temperature of the pile until it hits the target temperature of 130 F, when it will be remixed and left to sit until it warms up again. This process is typically repeated three times or until the remaining food scraps are unrecognizable. The pile is sifted and what remains is fine but highly nutrient-dense soil to be worked into the crop beds at the DPW Farm.
Additional nutrients come from the vermicompost, also called the worm compost. Located on the other side of the grove are two large wooden structures. Upon first glance, they look to be full of dirt, newspapers and a few fruit scraps. Closer inspection, however, reveals that these boxes are teeming with life. Worms work all day to digest and decompose what’s hand-selected by the wranglers to fit their taste.
“Worms are picky eaters,” Greer said. “They’re not gonna want anything spicy or acidic so as we’re collecting food scraps we’re also sorting for what the worms like to eat, like leafy greens, apples, bananas, juicy melons. Everything else goes into hot compost.”
These wooden bins have been home to many generations of worms. They were originally built and placed around Isla Vista, and DPW would manage the organic food waste of local restaurants before the arrangement with UCSB Dining. Right now, they are in the midst of renovation.
“We’re restoring them, changing the hardware so that we can get many more years out of the structures themselves,” Greer said.
When the worms break down the organic waste, they produce worm castings — essentially worm manure that acts as a sort of superfood for plants. Highly concentrated, the castings are mixed with water to brew what Greer refers to as “worm tea.” The worm tea is then taken to the DPW farm to boost the microbiological activity within the soil.
Anybody visiting the DPW farm on a tour are likely to witness produce growing so that it can later be supplied to the A.S. Food Bank. As of now, Greer said that students can expect to see goods from the farm at the food bank biweekly.
“Right now, things are still small on the farm, but our summer harvests were really delicious and abundant,” Greer said. “We had things like tomatoes, cucumbers, so many beans, lots of peppers.” This time of year, you can find things like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, onions, radishes and carrots on the farm.
If this food goes unclaimed at the food bank, it returns to The Grove as organic food waste to be composted alongside the dining hall scraps. Greer discussed the notion of a “closed loop” that is central to DPW’s mission.
“It’s about keeping it all in a loop,” she said. “Any produce that’s grown at the farm is donated to the food bank, any food that is not picked up can come back to us, we’ll compost it and, when that’s complete, we take that back to the farm and use it to grow more food. We’re not losing any of the nutrients throughout the cycle.”
This is not the only closed loop that DPW operates. In addition to working with campus dining and the A.S. Food Bank, they also manage the two Family Student Housing (FSH) Community Gardens, with 30 plots at West Campus FSH and 60 plots at Storke FSH. Residents of FSH can give their food scraps to DPW, who will compost it and give the nutrients back to them for their community gardens.
In one year of operation, from the beginning of fall 2022 to the end of summer 2023, the Department of Public Worms diverted 15144.85 pounds of food waste from landfills, according to their records.
“I think it’s important to keep in mind that although DPW diverts a small fraction of food waste generated at UCSB, it’s all kept on site,” Greer said. Furthermore, she noted that “it’s really [just] twelve dedicated students” who manage that amount of food waste throughout the school year.
“On one level, it’s just about being connected to your local food systems,” Greer said regarding why she feels DPW is important to the UCSB campus. “You feel connected to the process, to the Earth, to the people involved. Sharing that experience is valuable and DPW tries to do a lot of outreach and education and give other people opportunities to learn.”