Northwestern University Real Foods, or NURF (it’s pronounced like everyone’s favorite childhood toy, Nerf guns, a.k.a. something you got bored of after three minutes of use), a group that encourages the use of “real foods” at the university and they implemented compost bins in Norris University Center this spring.

Despite what the name might imply, “real foods” isn’t some kind of marketing scheme used to persuade suburban moms to buy organic or natural foods. Instead, real foods are defined by NURF as local, community-based, fair, ecologically sound and humane food sources.

Northwestern’s chapter of Real Foods, which is part of a national organization that aims to increase the use of real foods at universities, shifted its focus to larger projects after Compass took over dining hall services.

Why? Compass did a better job of meeting the goals of the organization in using real foods, allowing NURF to expand its goals. For its first project, the group decided to put composting in Norris, which aligned with its ecological mindset.

The composting process breaks down organic waste and turns it into fertilizer. This breakdown is carried out with microorganisms that use oxygen to turn the organic matter into simpler substances. Since nearly half of the trash humans throw away is organic, composting helps divert waste from landfills where they undergo a different breakdown process that produces greenhouse gases and instead produce high quality fertilizer.

“It’s definitely an overlooked issue,” Weinberg sophomore Shay Lebovitz said. “Food waste is a huge problem at Northwestern and just all over the world. Just the amount of stuff we send to landfills is outrageous.” The average food waste between the dining halls is about 15 pounds per person per month.

Signs in the dining halls remind students to avoid producing food waste. Photo by Gabrielle Rabon / North by Northwestern 

At the start of spring quarter, members of the group patrolled the compost bins placed in Norris to ensure that they weren’t contaminated, which can occur when any non-compostable item is thrown in a bin with compost. Since then, they have worked on using different strategies to reduce this contamination without patrolling the bins, including putting lids on the bins and adding signs explaining what can be composted.

“It’s something that takes less than two seconds,” SESP senior Livi Barton said. “I think that’s what’s so important about it.”

While the composting has been successful in Norris, NURF hopes to expand this program into other places on campus. One of the next steps is putting it into Greek housing where there is a lot of food waste produced by the dining services in each building. The group would also like to look into ways of expanding compost to off-campus housing.

“Our long-term goal is expanding it to the entire campus,” Weinberg junior Kaitlyn Poindexter said, “so that’s what we’re working towards.”