Rosie Mitchell felt dismayed about all the packaged food thrown into the trash at Newton Rayzor Elementary School.
So the fifth grader decided to do something about it by founding the Earth First Club. The student-run group joined the school’s ongoing composting project with a new initiative: to rescue packaged snacks bound for the trash and put them back into hungry students’ hands.
At first, Rosie said, Newton Rayzor STEM lab teacher Jodie Langhorne inspired the club founders to reduce the food waste she saw in the cafeteria. While the students considered how to tackle food waste, they started picking up trash on the school playground.
“Because our playground was really, like, trashed,” Rosie said. “And then I got the idea of ‘What if we actually make this an official club?’”
Rosie and the other founders drew up a petition and approached their peers. The students got 40 signatures.
“And none of those signatures were us,” Rosie said. “All of the signatures were from people who weren’t in the group.”
The students took the petition to Principal Shelly Panter, who gave them the green light to form the club. They spread the word by making a morning announcement, and then got to work.
On a Wednesday morning, fifth graders and founding club members Tori Davis, Faith Martinez, Piper Batanga and Rosie gather in the cafeteria 40 minutes before class starts, which is the breakfast rush.
As students stream off of their school buses, some walk directly into the cafeteria. Earth First has a simple system: They stand at the garbage can and offer a special receptacle for any leftover drinks. They take any sealed food or snacks their peers haven’t opened, and place them in a container for “dirty” items. A club member wipes down the package with a disinfecting wipe and puts it in a container for “clean” items. After breakfast ends and the bell rings, the club offers the snacks to fifth graders. The club asks no questions, so their peers can grab a snack for later or to take to a home where meals aren’t guaranteed.
“Rosie has been my friend for like nine years,” Piper said. “And they offered it up. They were like, ‘Hey, I’m making this club, you want to join?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, sure.’”
Piper said she asked about the club’s purpose.
“They were like, ‘It’s about helping the planet.’ And for some time, it was way down on the low. I wanted to join, but not many people did.”
Faith, another fifth grader, said she helped Rosie start the group.
“I used to do clubs all the time with my friends at my old school, and so I thought, why don’t we do it here, too?” Faith said. “And it kind of actually started working. And it kind of got up to what I hoped it would be. And it just got really fun.”
Club members said Newton Rayzor students sometimes pick up packaged muffins and Scooby-Doo Snacks, a graham cracker treat in bone shapes, but don’t end up eating them. But both items are popular when they’re offered to students by Earth First (which is not to be confused with the similarly named 1980s-era radical environmental group Earth First!).
The club at Newton Rayzor also takes food scraps and composts them. Club member Tori supervises the school’s composting project. The compost fertilizes the beds in the school garden, where classes grow flowers and vegetables. The garden went fallow during COVID-19, Tori said, but the composting has resumed.
“We use the compost here, and some of the teachers take it home to use on their plants or on the plants in their classroom,” she said. “But [Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science] also uses it. They’re our biggest partner.”
Tori helps get food scraps into the wet compost first. She gathers scraps in a bucket.
“I have to go around and be like, ‘Do you want your vegetables?’ And they’re like, ‘No, because vegetables are gross,’” Tori said.
“It’s very smelly,” she said, cranking the handle of a compost tumbler to mix the contents as microbes break down the discarded food. “But it works. It turns into the dry compost.”
There are two wet compost bins in the garden, and Davis tumbles them each time she adds new scraps. When they’re filled, she tumbles them periodically for about four weeks. When the moisture evaporates, the compost is transferred to the dry compost bins, where it’s available for use.
The Earth First Club is just for fifth graders, Rosie said.
“Our club just allows fifth graders because that’s who we think could do the job best, because it does take some responsibility,” they said. “Like making sure all the food is there. Like delivering it to the classroom, and making sure you deliver it to the right classrooms, stuff like that.”
Rosie said the club gets from one to five snacks to distribute to the school’s five fifth grade classes.
“I’m estimating maybe around 70-75 [snacks] per week,” they said. “There are some weeks that, like, three of the days during that week they didn’t serve packaged food and the other two days, like, we only got one, so it depends.”
Rosie said she hopes some students who will be in fifth grade during the 2022-23 school year will keep the club going. But Rosie said she knows this could be the final year of the Earth First Club. It requires getting to school at 7 a.m., and the students have to communicate with each other and the teachers and administrators.
Rosie hopes the club is helping reduce waste, and that keeping the food out of landfills will help combat landfill gasses that are said to contribute to climate change.
“I’m really proud to be one of the people who helped start it,” they said. “I’m really proud that it was able to actually turn into an actual club that we did every morning. And I’m just like proud of the effect that we’ve had. Because I’ve noticed a lot of people saving their snacks more than just like throwing it away, too.”
Rosie will attend Calhoun Middle School next year and hopes to study theater there. There’s also a possibility that the list of clubs at Calhoun could get longer.
“If you really want to make a club, you have to be very determined, and you have to start working for it,” Rosie said. “If you have enough courage and bravery and passion to do it, you can do it.”