Collaboration cultivates success for food waste composting and education pilot program

Departments - Waste Watch

A lesson in funding from Prince William County Public School Division in Virginia.

August 2, 2022

Sharpen your pencils—summertime traditionally is known as grant-writing season! For those managing municipal or community-based composting programs, you might be looking for creative ways to fund your initiatives. Like the nutrient-rich, perfectly matured compost your programs aim to produce, a successful composting grant needs many things to come together harmoniously, and there are regional, state and federal funding opportunities to consider.

The Prince William County Public School (PWCS) Division in Virginia successfully leveraged its resources to develop a grant application aimed at supporting organics diversion. Awarded in August 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Community Compost and Food Waste Reduction grant helped to lift the PWCS Food Waste Composting and Education Pilot Program to new heights.

It was important to the school division to start small and build a divisionwide composting program. The division includes 95 schools with about 91,500 students, making it Virginia’s second-largest school division. With USDA funding, it designed a pilot program to divert and collect food waste from selected schools within the division for compost processing off-site. The pilot program is underway and is expected to wrap up in September.

Cooperation was the name of the game in developing the grant application. In addition to school staff, students and volunteers, the county and the Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) support food waste diversion goals. Prince William County spearheaded the USDA grant application process (using GBB to support the effort) and management of the program budget. The VCE’s Prince William Unit had an established relationship with the school division and helped prepare supplemental curriculum materials, including an instructional YouTube video. The video, which was prepared with the PWCS Energy and Sustainability Team, was presented as a virtual training to volunteers.

Effective program implementation includes handling all challenges. The rubber hit the road when students returned to school in the fall of 2021. Teachers, staff and administrators launched a coordinated effort to teach students about the new food waste diversion goals, procedures and activities.

Each pilot school conducted a waste audit in which the student body and volunteers participated. The purpose of the audit was to establish a baseline of material composition at each school to measure progress over time and engage students. Subsequent waste audits are conducted quarterly to measure progress and gather data and program feedback.

Funding should support your mission. Incorporating the composting program into curricula was important for the division. Part of the curriculum includes periodic soil testing, which will measure progress in improving soil quality before and after compost application. Teachers and staff also are tracking how the application of compost to the garden plots is reducing the need for fertilizer application.

With many helping hands, the six pilot schools have diverted more than 49 tons of food scraps and organic waste from landfill since the program’s implementation in August 2021.

While the grant is slated to wrap up this fall, students, school staff, county representatives and community members at the pilot schools will continue sorting their food scraps for another year as the PWCS Division designs the divisionwide rollout plan.

To explore grant opportunities for compost programs, consider several resources:

  • solid waste management or public works departments;
  • the state’s agricultural or cooperative extension (typically managed by public, land-grant colleges and universities);
  • the USDA (Visit to learn about federal grants applicable to your project.);
  • regional- or state-based solid waste associations;
  • foundations with agricultural, sustainability or waste diversion missions;
  • councils of governments in your area; and
  • for-profit businesses (While the dollar amount may be lower, if you can apply to several companies, this will garner broader community investment.).