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From the Ground Up

Food waste is pervasive, but from the grocery store to a retired couple, locals are doing their parts to reduce it

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This is part two of a three-part series on Boiseans who innovate in the three Rs—Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

Up to 40% of all food in the United States goes to waste. Whether that is spoiled food in someone's fridge or a grocery store throwing out the produce that never made it into shoppers' baskets, it goes uneaten. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that waste was worth approximately $161 billion in 2010.

The onus of reducing food waste is wide-spread. Corporate grocery chains, individual consumers and farmers can all respectively do their parts to reduce food waste. In Boise, the efforts to reduce that waste are well underway, and much of it has spread by a passion project started 14 years ago in a garage nestled in a small corner of Southeast Boise.

Jan Shirley and her husband Dan Mergenthaler started using worms to digest food waste and produce a highly fertile organic compost when Shirley decided to pick up worm composting as a hobby years ago. She's an avid gardener and a former nurse. With a passion for physical health and sustainability, a worm compost, or vermicompost, checked all the boxes. It started with a few Rubbermaid bins in her garage, and has since expanded into a small business, Wiggly Composters.

"That grew, so I started another, then another, pretty soon I had a couple of dozen Rubbermaid bins in the garage I was maintaining," she said.

Jan Shirley, left, started with only a Rubbermaid bin of worms. Now, her operation has grown - XAVIER WARD
  • Xavier Ward
  • Jan Shirley, left, started with only a Rubbermaid bin of worms. Now, her operation has grown

The process starts away from the Shirley-Mergenthaler residence, at farms where the produce is grown. The food produced there makes its way to stores like Albertsons, where much of it goes to waste. The Boise-headquartered grocer, however, is always on the lookout for ways to reduce its waste. In doing so, it has inked partnerships with people like Shirley and local pig farmers to get rid of its unsold, spoiled food.

"Basically anything that's edible, non-plastic, non-container, anything—especially in the produce department—that is bad, per se, goes into a pig bin," said Daniel Ashley, assistant store director at the Albertsons on Federal Way.

Most spoiled produce at Albertsons goes to the local pig purveyors, but roughly 200-300 pounds of waste from its pre-cut fruit goes to Shirley's worms every week. Ashley said he couldn't quantify an exact amount of waste that goes to local farmers, but said it's considerable.

"Basically when I first started with the company we had these giant compactors on the back of every store and everything just got dumped down there," Ashley said.

Those compactors were eliminated more than a decade ago. Now, each Albertsons store uses a standard-sized dumpster behind the store, which are emptied every other day. For the waste that doesn't go to Shirley's operation or local pig farmers, much is donated to the Idaho Food Bank, which makes daily pickups, Ashley said.

"I think it's been pretty interesting in the time I've been with Albertsons to watch the compactors disappear and basically all of the stores have switched to a small little dumpster you would see in the back of an alley," he said. "For a big operation, that's pretty minimal [waste] that's going to the landfill, and that's anything you can't recycle here at the store."

When the leftover fruit, mostly melon rinds, reaches the Shirley-Mergenthaler worm operation, Shirley is ready, and so are her worms, which she refers to affectionately as her "little dudes." The worms are small and anatomically simple, but perform a complex function. They are deaf, blind and toothless, but rush to the food the second it hits the bin. In total, Shirley has around 200,000 worms scattered throughout her residence, all of which can eat up to 100% their own bodyweight in food, though it's usually closer to 75%, Shirley said.

"What's so magnificent about the worm, the earthworm, they have no eyes, they have no teeth, they can't hear, but yet they can find food, eat, reproduce and survive," she said.

Once the worms eat the food, the byproduct is the "castings," which are a highly fertile compost resembling coffee grounds in both appearance and texture. There is also a liquid byproduct that can be turned into a natural spray to douse plants. This not only fertilizes the plants, but keeps pests away.

Shirley's compost often goes to her garden or other local gardens such as the North End Organic Nursery. She also sells her worms by the pound through the nursery. The hermaphroditic critters reproduce rapidly, so there's never a short supply.

Shirley has plenty of compassion for the tiny creatures, which are often overlooked and more often considered vermin by the average person. She spends hours in her garage, a veritable worm paradise for the crawlers that live in the 350-gallon horse trough. It's a moment of Zen when she's catering to the worms. She doesn't have to think about her own troubles or those of the world, she's simply focusing on her worms and recycling food waste at the same time.

A bonus to using worms is the natural pesticide the compost provides. When the worms process the food and produce the byproduct, the microbes in the castings ward off would-be pests, eliminating the need for chemical pesticides.

"This, to me, was an opportunity and a fun hobby to deal with the waste, the food waste we have," she said.

She's even known to some as "the worm lady," but she doesn't take that as a slight, wearing it as a badge of honor. Her goal is not simply to take a few buckets of spent food from Albertsons a week, but rather to spread the mission of vermicomposting. She teaches classes all over the Treasure Valley, from children to teenagers and even seniors, passing on the message and know-how is her way of giving back.

"Like us, it's just paying it forward and getting people turned on to this," she said. "It just takes the focus and the passion to understand what you're doing for the environment. This is just another alternative to recycling food waste."

Tending to the worms is no small task, and she makes sure her students know that. Though simple in anatomy, the worms are hypersensitive to light, touch and vibration. She has even witnessed unhappy worms make escape efforts, in which they'll use each other as ladders to scale the sides of the bin in an attempt to find greener pastures. Over the nearly 15 years Shirley has tended to the worms, she has learned what makes the worms happy and healthy, and she's eager to teach others what she knows.

"I want to continue the teaching we're doing, to me that's most important of what's coming out of this," she said.

In doing so, she has passed along her passion not only to attendants of her classes, but to local farmers and businesses who want to make their operations more sustainable. She recently sold off some of her large insulated worm bins to Peaceful Belly farm in Caldwell—an operation the farm had wanted to undertake for years, and now has the support of a vermicompost veteran. Shirley doesn't just sell off her supplies and turn the other way, she plans to travel out to Peaceful Belly to make sure the worms have everything they need to survive and thrive.

Peaceful Belly isn't the first local organization she's partnered with. Years ago, Shirley helped start Bittercreek Ale House's vermicompost, which has since scaled up its operation.

Nick Balthes, who works in executive operations for Bittercreek's row of restaurants on Eighth Street, said the effort to become more sustainable started years ago, when the economy was in tatters.

"How do we eliminate waste? How do we make this business profitable?" he asked.

Bittercreek wanted to not only help eliminate waste, but do right by the community. To the minds of the decision-makers, adopting more sustainable practices allows it to do that.

Bittercreek partnered with Shirley, who sold the restaurants the worms and helped it set up the operation. The momentum behind the composting operation has ebbed and flowed, but Balthes said it's in full effect now.

Bittercreek has rented a machine that turns vegetable kitchen scraps into a mealy grind which serves as the worm feed. While the machine presently works only as a way to make worm food, Balthes said there are bigger plans. In the future, he hopes to use it to break down other, non-worm-friendly foods to go to the City of Boise's compost. For now, it's just feeding the worms, and that eliminates plenty of food waste.

"I would say, when we're operating at full capacity, we're feeding the worms one good feed a week, and it's anywhere from 100 to 150 pounds," he said.

While Shirley is no longer involved with Bittercreek's operation, her fingerprints are all over it. From best practices to a passion for recycling, her impact and drive are infectious. Passion is exactly what drives her and those around her, and she won't give that up any time soon.

"I'll be doing it until I die. I know I will," Shirley said.

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