Every day for the past 14 years, Mindy Jaffe has thought about worms.

“Now these guys are my favorite!” she said, picking up a handful of earthworms from a bin in the corner of a playground at Kainalu Elementary School. “They really do all the hard work around here.”

Her organization, Windward Zero Waste School Hui, runs composting programs for five schools in Kailua. Last school year the program turned more than 55 tons of unfinished sandwiches, spoiled milk and other food waste into rich soil for school gardens.

Jaffe has school composting down to a science: every step is meticulously documented and students of all ages are involved. First graders shred old worksheets and other paper for the worm bins. Older students study the aerobic processes at work on their own campuses.

“I get an email a week from another principal who wants a zero-waste school,” Jaffe said. “The momentum is very high, the excitement is very high and the demand is huge.”

A woman in a blue polo points at a poster on the ground. The poster shows the process of composting and resource recovery at one school.

Jaffe brings educational posters to each of the schools she works with. This one explains to students the many ways their paper and food waste is used to fuel the school garden and playground lawn.

Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat

Windward Zero Waste School Hui was part of a lobbying effort to pass a state law that would set aside funds for schools who want composting programs.

Jaffe thought that some of the new state funding would support her program and the schools she works with. But a year after the law was passed, the Hawaii Department of Education awarded almost all the money to a private engineering firm. Now Jaffe says her program is at risk of shutting down.

Funding School Composting Efforts

HB2025 was signed into law in July 2018. It provided $300,000 for schools, organizations or the DOE to set up composting and other “zero waste” programs.

Rep. Chris Lee, the primary sponsor of the bill, said Windward Zero Waste School Hui was one of many organizations that collaborated on the language of the bill and spent two years lobbying the Legislature to dedicate money to zero waste programs.

“I wrote it to give all schools the opportunity to implement composting and zero-waste programs that had been so successful in some of our schools on the Windward side,” Lee said.

He’s concerned that school principals who worked with Jaffe feel they were blocked from accessing the funds.

“I’ve been working with some of the school principals to figure out what happened at the Department of Education and figure out what could be done to implement what was intended,” he said.

a pair of hands hold a clump of dark soil and worms

Jaffe is a big fan of worms and says many of the students are too. “They love coming and checking in on the worms during recess,” she said.

Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat

The DOE said it signed a contract with Okahara and Associates Inc., an engineering firm, to “assist in establishing the framework for a composting pilot program and campus composting guidelines.”

Okahara and Associates said the $285,000 contract was signed on June 27. Lindsey Whitcomb, the fundraising lead for Windward Zero Waste School Hui, said this was after the DOE told her funding for the program had lapsed.

“All this money is getting diverted before it’s getting to the mouth it’s supposed to feed,” she said. 

A DOE spokeswoman said via email that the DOE “remains committed to working with the contractor to fulfill the requirements of the law and support sustainable programs in our schools.”

“We’re already here,” Jaffe said. “I just can’t do that to the schools that are already operating: this is now their campus culture. They don’t want to go back to the old way.”

Confusion Over Application Process

Jaffe and Whitcomb worked with eight school principals to complete an application given to Jaffe by the DOE.

Olomana School, an intermediate and high school in Kailua, requested $5,600 to buy supplies and train more staff. 

Nathan Maeda, the school principal at Maunawili Elementary, requested $24,999. His school’s budget breakdown lists everything from a wheelbarrow to rubber hoses to vinyl informational posters. 

Kaohao School has been composting since 2014, and its funding request notes the 341-student school only produces four bags of trash a day because all food, paper, cardboard and landscaping waste is processed on campus.

None of the schools received funds. Whitcomb feels the application was bogus because the DOE told her it was a draft only after the eight school principals submitted cover letters and budget breakdowns.

A DOE spokeswoman did not respond to questions about the application process.

Jaffe and Whitcomb said their program is now at risk.

For the last seven years, Windward Zero Waste School Hui has been funded mainly through private donations. Jaffe said she kept believing the DOE money would come through as all eight schools cited her organization as their preferred contractor on the applications.

Since none of the schools received funds, she estimates she only has enough money to stay up-and-running for two more weeks.

After that, she’ll still be collecting food waste from cafeterias, tracking the temperatures inside compost piles and checking in on the worms — but won’t ask others to do it for free.

“It’s hard labor,” Jaffe said. “People do it because they care about the mission but they still need to be paid.”

The uncertainty has already hurt the small program. Jaffee said she lost workers because she wasn’t able to guarantee them a paycheck.

“These are living systems — if no one shows up the worms die and the compost begins to smell and you have to start all over again,” she said. “I’m not going to just walk away.”

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