Christian Roland, 13, claws through the dirt of one of the two worm bins outside Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School, 325 S. Kenilworth Ave.
Each bin is filled with two pounds of tiny red wigglers. About once a week, the students feed the 200 worms partially eaten apples, bananas and other food waste from the school cafeteria. The little gorgers are being used to help turn food waste into rich soil fertilizer?#34;a process called vermicomposting.
"We're giving the worms oranges and bananas and stuff like that so they can eat it," said Roland, an eighth grader.
Roland and his eighth-grade class along with another class of sixth, seventh and eighth graders, set up pails in the cafeteria to collect discarded food. The worms can also eat eggshells, coffee grounds and tea bags. It's best not to feed them anything that would attract rats or flies, such as meats or oily foods.
The worms are barely visible, covered in dirt in their 16-by-16 bins, located in the back of the school near the dumpsters. Only a few leftovers from their previous meal are visible.
"They're pretty small, I mean, on a scale of worms," said 13-year-old Michael Davis, who's in the eighth grade. "When you think of worms, you think they're like 10 inches long. But these are a little smaller."
The vermicomposting program is funded through a grant from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and Keep Illinois Beautiful, an environmental advocacy group. The program is a part of Brooks' Service Learning Project and science curriculum.
The school will use the remainder of its $2,000 grant to buy two additional bins of red wigglers. Keep Oak Park Beautiful, an offshoot of Keep Illinois Beautiful, partnered with the school in developing the program.
Brooks Middle School teacher Gale Liebman, whose sixth, seventh and eighth grade class is involved in the project, wanted to develop a program to teach students about protecting the environment. Brooks is the only school in the district with such a program. Liebman said the project could become a model for other district schools.
"I was very excited to be a part of this," said Liebman. "This is a wonderful program that's teaching kids the importance of protecting the environment."
The practice can be used in schools, households and apartments or practically anywhere where a few hundred worms can be kept. Night crawlers and red wigglers are the most common earthworms used for composting. Brooks' red wigglers were chosen because they are fast decomposers. The wigglers can eat half of their body weight within 24 to 48 hours.
The term vermicomposting is a combination of vermin, the Latin word for worm, and the process of composting, mixing decaying vegetation and manure to use as fertilizer.
Since the worms have no teeth, the students ground up paper and coconuts for the worms to swallow. The worms use the bedding to digest food in their gizzards. Small jars of soap and vinegar are placed underneath the dirt-filled bins to keep fruit flies away.
Brooks' program will run through the school year. Other schools in the district have expressed interest in bringing vermicomposting to their schools. Liebman and eight-grade teacher Karen Tokarz, whose class is also involved in the project, will meet with other Dist. 97 school officials within a month.
"This is much better than just reading out of a book," said Tokarz. "They're learning about science, they're learning about the environment and they're learning how to be good, productive citizens."