It’s a quiet Sunday afternoon at Oakes College, with few people in sight despite the rare appearance of warm sunshine. For students Gabe Schiering, Lydia Oltman, Charlie Lysikhina, and Isabella Brower, it’s a perfect time to make dirt.
Packed into wooden palettes is a four-week-old pile of compost, made up of ground matter and food scraps. As the four students tear away the tarp — which keeps moisture out and heat in — flies rush out from underneath, briefly swarming the area.
The group is unphased by the insectile visitors. Instead, with pitchforks in hand, they work to aerate the fledgling soil. It’s an ambush. Oltman, one of the garden leaders, whacks at whole onions and pomegranates with her pitchfork, while the others strategically jab at the pile with their tools.
“We grew up in this culture where banana peels are trash. The hardest part is teaching people that banana peels are not trash,” said Gabe Schiering, another Oakes Garden leader. “You have to ingrain into people’s brains that an avocado pit and your moldy rice is not trash, it’s dirt in the making.”
The Oakes Gardening Club was recently restarted by Schiering, Oltman, and other students over the 2021-2022 school year as students returned to campus following the pandemic. With approximately 30 general members, the club focuses on gardening, education on food security, and artistic opportunities such as painting garden decor.
Their composting initiative began in winter 2023 with the goal to create a self-sustaining food waste management system at Oakes College.
“If we generate food waste in this college, it stays in this college. It’s composted in this college, and it turns back into new vegetables in this college that are eaten in this college,” Schiering said.
The club also hopes to grow more produce in the garden, as they did before the pandemic. The compost made in the garden would be then used to grow the food.
The club began collaborating with Oakes Cafe to collect coffee grounds, receiving nearly 15 gallons of this nitrogen-rich resource since the start of winter 2023. The club also received grant money from Measure 43 to buy compost bins for all Oakes apartments.
Measure 43, the Sustainable Food, Health, and Wellness Initiative, was passed in 2010 by students at UCSC. The measure added $3.75 in student fees each quarter to fund classes, grants, and programs that educate the campus on gardening, farming, and other food systems.
UCSC’s 2020 Zero Waste Goal intended to divert 90 percent of municipal solid waste into either recycling or composting. However, in the two years since, the amount of landfill waste produced on campus has increased by seven percent. Currently, UCSC’s compost and recycling is sent to ReGen Monterey, a waste management facility in Salinas.
Gabe Schiering holds up a dining hall cup from the trash:
“When you go to the cafes or the dining hall on campus, you’re getting those cups and those plastic forks and stuff that say compostable. [They] are compostable only at industrial facilities like that.”
Photo by Arthur Wei.
“If everyone starts asking, why are we sending our food waste off campus to be processed off-site and used offsite? Why are we continuing to [promote] single-use waste?” Schiering said. “We can try to put band-aids on problems, or we can try to ask the right questions to find the right answers.”
The student labor and the compost work at Oakes Garden is all volunteer-based and unpaid. At other gardens on campus, like Kresge Garden or Merrill’s Chadwick Garden, there are both volunteer and paid positions.
“None of us are getting paid to create and run the composting program we have devised. None of us have any formal titles that we can put on a resume so far,” Schiering said.
Currently, the club’s funding comes mainly from Measure 43, and they are currently also awaiting funding after applying for the Dean of Students grant.
Maria Dolores Castillo, Oakes Garden advisor, noted that the money for Oakes Garden isn’t money the club will get every year. Rather, they will have to re-apply for the grant each year.
Other gardens, such as Chadwick Garden, have their own compost programs. The Sustainability Office also started a pilot compost program in fall 2022 at Porter residence halls A and B, as well as the apartments.
Derek Martin, the Sustainability Office Programs Director, stated that while garden composting initiatives provide more localized solutions for the campus community, the trouble comes in tasking large dining hall operations with separating fruits, vegetables, and grains from their meat, dairy, and bone waste.
“We need an on-campus system that could handle meat, dairy, and bones on top of everything else which the garden systems can’t do at this point in time,” Martin said. “The amount of food waste that we see far outstrips any of the gardens’ capacity.”
The question of UCSC’s ability to meet its sustainability goals remains uncertain, even unlikely. To Schiering, the institutional stagnation at UCSC has stifled more creative solutions for sustainability, as well as financial support for the student labor at Oakes Garden.
Meanwhile, the gates at Oakes Garden remain open for everyone on campus who wishes to stop and smell the flowers, harvest mushrooms, or sit on the bench swing. For Oakes Garden leaders like Schiering, environmental progress can be found in the space, too.
“Young college students have historically been drivers of change in the world,” Schiering said. “If we see solutions and want to pursue them, the university as a research institution ought to support the programs that are trying to create better communities [and] systems.”
Mylah Ellis contributed additional reporting.
This article was published as part of a backlog of content from March 2023.