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Returning to the Earth

Originally appears in the Winter 2015 issue

EVERYBODY EATS. No matter who we are, where we live, or what we do, food will always be required to keep us alive. At school, the way in which students eat has the ability to teach many lessons. School bell enforced throwaway lunches commonly promote an unsustainable and disconnected experience of food systems. However, mealtime can be a gateway to understanding our dependence on plants, animals, fungi and bacteria. Through the process of decomposition we are tangibly connected back to the soil from which our food is born. Bolstered by tangible experiences with the life-giving forces that make healthy organic soil, mealtime becomes an experience of interdependence and an opportunity for experiential learning.

Creating composting programs that experientially engage learners in the process of return deepens our understanding of whole food cycles and other complex living systems. This article discusses the importance of experiencing compost as a process and provides tangible examples of how to support experiential learning about decomposition in schools.

An End or the Beginning of a Process?

The concept of sustainability can be both conceptually abstract and emotionally triggering. Without tangible connections to real-life systems it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the idea. The whole food system presents a compelling entry into the complex concepts wrapped up in the notion of sustainability. By participating in every aspect of the food cycle, students are empowered to connect their daily activities to a more complete understanding of complex systems.

The term food cycle describes a circular food system that encompasses: food production (growing and harvesting), procurement, preparation, sharing, and food waste management. Once food is growing close to home, compost becomes integral to closing the food cycle loop and making it sustainable, or circular. In the journal of Research in Science Education, Ero-Tolliver et al.1 describe how, “Educational treatments of life cycles almost always conclude with the death of the organism, even though processes of decay are at least as consequential for the health and balance of our world.” The lack of proper treatment and appreciation for the process of decay has precipitated a concerning societal legacy that assumes waste and death to be an ugly end-point to be feared or hauled away. This cultural conception belies the essential process of decomposition and rebirth and prohibits many from appreciating the value of whole food cycles.

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Matthew Kemshaw is a Research Facilitator with the Think&EatGreen@School project in Vancouver, British Columbia. Focussing on building healthy and sustainable school food systems by facilitating action research, the project enables students, teachers, and policy makers to influence where their food comes from and how it is produced. Learn more at or contact the author via