Closing the Circle: Composting at LSTC

by Erin Koster, M.Div., middler

Two years ago, the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago decided to take on an ambitious project. It wanted to expand its composting program, which began in student housing in 2010, to its refectory. The scale of the initiative would be a challenge, but would also offer the seminary a chance to live out its theology of caring for creation.

This project is part of LSTC’s new focus on its dining services. Sharing meals together and preserving creation have theological significance for the seminary. It hired a new director of food services, Chef Ben Randall, in May 2012. Part of his job is to partner with the LSTC community to decrease the refectory’s environmental footprint.

“It’s challenging, but also fun. There’s a saying in kitchens: garbage in, garbage out. You can think of the world in the same way. We get back what we put in,” Randall said.

The expanded composting program became such a success that, in 2013, the refectory enlisted the help of a local company to keep up with the amount of compost they produce. The refectory works with Food to Farm Composting, which is Chicago’s oldest and largest nonprofit recycling and urban agriculture organization. Food to Farm Composting picks up compostables from LSTC. The finished compost is used by City Farm, a group that transforms empty Chicago land into urban farmland. To complete the cycle of sustainability, City Farm supports local farmers markets, restaurants, and community-sponsored agriculture.

Composting also has an immediate impact on the seminary. LSTC also uses its compost to contribute to the growth of organic produce in the seminary’s community food garden and improves the soil in on-campus landscape gardens. Currently, LSTC diverts approximately 1200 cubic feet of solid waste from landfills each year by composting food and garden material, 25 percent of which comes from the refectory.

Broader changes taking place

Composting has played a key part in the refectory’s overhaul. When the head chef position became available, LSTC decided to hire someone who could operate the refectory in a sustainable way, with a diverse and ethical menu. Randall has done that with the help of his two line cooks, Frank Perez and Pedro Rodriguez. They cut package waste by increasing the amount of house-made food to 75 percent. All of the refectory’s disposable utensils and containers are compostable. Randall buys local ingredients to support farmers and businesses in the area, and cut back on pollution from shipping.

Though he has on-the-job experience with some green practices, Randall has never worked in a kitchen that takes this commitment so seriously. Randall draws inspiration from what he and his family do at home. They have their own compost tumbler, which his five-year-old son thinks is the Batmobile.

“Professionally, it’s a new thing for me. Unfortunately, it’s just not the industry standard. Anything that requires chefs to do more work makes them angry. … I don’t want to say that we’re on the cutting edge, but that’s what it is,” he said.

LSTC’s refectory is a founding member of the "We Compost" recognition program of the Illinois Food Scrap Coalition. Members receive a window decal for their businesses which inform the public that they take part in composting. In doing so, they hope to encourage patrons to visit restaurants they know are committed to sustainability.

A decades-long movement

The basis for the refectory’s makeover has its roots in the sixties, when the seminary was founded. Over the years, two professors—Dr. Joe Sittler and Dr. David Rhoads—helped the seminary turn its focus to sustainability. Now, with the help of the faculty, the school offers an Environmental Ministry emphasis for its master’s degree students.

In addition to its sustainability-oriented curriculum, LSTC is also part of several seminary and synodical groups that help support green efforts. It hired a sustainability coordinator, Jim Schaal, to couple the science and theology of environmentalism. Green Zone, a student-run organization at LSTC, helps lead the way by organizing on-campus farmers’ markets, offering documentary viewings, and facilitating conversation.

LSTC also continually works to reduce its energy use by updating its facilities. In coming years, LSTC hopes to step into creating energy through wind or solar power. The seminary has received a grant that allows it to write a sustainability plan, which will be complete by December 2014.

“It’s part of who we are. … We’ve always done it and we will expand,” said Bob Berridge, LSTC’s vice president of operations.