Three years ago, Mike Toelle, then elementary school principal and now superintendent in the Tomorrow River School District near Amherst, was looking for a way to reduce the school kitchen’s food waste. After some research, it was decided to start raising pigs and incorporating the project in the second-grade curriculum.
“It really started out from thinking how can we recycle or save some money in the kitchen. We saw an awful lot of items getting thrown away and we thought what can we do with that?” Toelle said.
Two staff members began researching the idea of raising pigs using the food waste from the kitchen. They found that the scraps from the students’ trays could not be used to feed the pigs, but anything from the food line or scraps from the kitchen could be used. They also could use the expired milk from the lunch program.
Toelle said once they had the idea, they began working on how the school could raise pigs and include the students in the project.
“We put it out to the grade levels asking where (the pigs) could fit in and the second grade said that it would fit in their curriculum,” Toelle said.
After it was decided what could be used to feed the pigs and how students could learn from the experience, the school began looking for a host family for the pigs.
“We developed a contract with the host family and decided how many pigs we were going to raise and what we were going to use them for and it blossomed out of that,” Toelle said.
In addition to being a learning experience for the students, the project has saved the school district several hundred dollars by allowing them to get rid of one garbage dumpster, replacing it with a recycling bin. Toelle said Tomorrow River Schools have always been big in recycling and finding ways to cut costs and they were excited to see the pig project doing just that for the school.
Kitchen food waste is gathered into 5-gallon pails for the host family to pick up. Typically four or five 5-gallon pails are collected per day along with another 7 to 8 gallons of waste milk. The pigs are supplemented with feed that an area feed mill drops off at the host farm as it is needed.
Toelle said the project has helped connect many projects, including the school’s large garden, together. Harvest from the school garden is used in the school lunch program, but any remaining scraps or excess vegetables that aren’t able to go through the kitchen are fed to the pigs.
“It is just another source of what we can use the school garden items for. It is a good way to tie all the different projects we are doing together,” Toelle said.
The project also has expanded to include the Elementary Parent Teacher Organization, which raffles off three of the processed pigs in halves as a fundraiser. Their efforts typically raise $1,500 to $2,000 for their organization, which in turn is returned to the school in donations that are needed for the classrooms.
“It is nice that the PTO has the opportunity to raise money and then they buy items for the school, such as they just donated $10,000 to the elementary for (laptop computers),” Toelle said.
Of the remaining three finished pigs, the host family receives one and the other two return to the school, one designated for the Senior Scholarship Banquet and the other goes toward a school activity.
The project typically runs from the middle of January through the end of the school year, with the second-grade students involved in as much of it as possible.
“The students take field trips out to the pigs, doing measurements and some charting of the pigs’ (weights). They also get to name the pigs, but it has to be a non-person name,” Toelle said. “They take a field trip out there at least once a month and it ties into their curriculum. They are doing a lot of writing related to it, reading books about pigs and some math. They also learn all about the life cycle of the pigs.”
Toelle said he thinks it is important for the students to understand where their food is coming from and to give them the opportunity to learn more about farming firsthand. He said a letter is sent home to all of the families at the beginning of the year so they understand what the project is about.
“(The students) really love the project. It is amazing how connected they get with the pigs,” Toelle said. “I remember last year we got the pigs shortly before Christmas break and the first time they went out to the farm, the kids were singing the pigs Christmas songs.”
He said the students do get to say goodbye to the pigs at the end of the year.
Overall, the project has been very successful for the school district and is something Toelle said they plan to continue into the future.
Sherry Oleson, elementary school principal, said she sees the project growing to include the high school agriculture program, allowing those students in agriculture education to be a part of the field trips and giving them an opportunity to learn more about the health and other aspects of raising the pigs.
Toelle said they are also looking at the potential of having a space where the agriculture department could bring the pigs into for a few days to do hands-on projects during class time, but it is still in the planning stages.
Toelle said the project is something he would like to see other rural schools implement.
“It is really a simple project and something that a lot of schools could be utilizing. I think it has been such a big success and everyone looks forward to it every year,” Toelle said.