Amanda Jewett scoops up a handful of dirt and worms from a bin on her balcony. She obtained the colony of worms, which eat her food waste and turn it into fertile organic soil for gardening. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Amanda Jewett scoops up a handful of dirt and worms from a bin on her balcony. She obtained the colony of worms, which eat her food waste and turn it into fertile organic soil for gardening. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
The latest residents of Amanda Jewett’s modest Southeast Portland apartment are several hundred red worms who love to eat her garbage.

Jewett, coordinator of youth and young adult ministry at St. Cecilia Parish in Beaverton, keeps her new housemates on the balcony in bins of dirt where she thoughtfully tosses food waste. After a few weeks of munching and digesting, the worms emit a rich organic soil that Jewett uses for potted plants and gives to her friends who have gardens.

The worm project is the latest ecological move for Jewett, who is working toward a life in which she sends zilch to landfills. Pope Francis motivated her when, in 2015, he called on Catholics worldwide to do more for the welfare of God’s creation. Jewett read his encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” and then worked her way through commentaries. She saw that the pope had taken a biblical approach, highlighting human stewardship. The pope also noted that when climate shifts, low-income people are harmed first and worst.

“I feel it’s important for us as people of faith to really make a difference,” said Jewett, 25. “Everybody can do something. There are all kinds of ways in which people can make less trash.”

In 2016, Jewett felt a personal investment in the Dakota Access Pipeline debates and protests. The 1,200-mile underground pipe carries oil from North Dakota to Illinois. Some Native American leaders objected to the disturbance of tribal lands, and environmentalists, including Jewett, questioned the emphasis on fossil fuels over renewable energy. Her mother grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

“I took it personally,” Jewett said. “Catholic social teaching on solidarity and the dignity of people was being disregarded.”

She felt helpless. Then she read that plastic is made from petroleum products. She looked around her house and saw plastic everywhere — especially bags and food containers. “I felt like such a hypocrite.”

And so began Jewett’s first resolution — pass up plastic. She found reusable linen bags for shopping, including produce. She saved glass jars that she uses to hold leftovers, plus bulk beans, rice, cereal and spices. She refuses to buy items that come in big plastic containers.

She is glad that Portland and other Oregon cities have nixed plastic grocery bags and hopes for more bans. She won’t use straws and brings her own reusable cup to coffee shops. She bakes her own bread, sparing the landfill from hundreds of bread bags.

Jewett also found her body reacting to chemicals in health and hygiene products, so she started making her own soap, shampoo and toothpaste. She concocts laundry detergent.

The next frontier for Jewett is transportation. She can walk to almost all her shopping, banking, haircuts and entertainment, but lives 14 miles from her workplace and so drives. She wants to walk or bicycle to work someday, but notes that changing diet can reduce carbon emissions even more than how we travel.

So she buys locally produced food, which cuts down on truck transport. She eats meat sparingly, since its production boosts carbon in the atmosphere. This Lent, she has tried to eat like a vegan.

“We joke that when we go to throw something away we think of Sarah and say, ‘Uh-oh,’” said Samantha Matthews, leader of a young Catholic professionals group and pastoral assistant at St. Patrick Parish in Northwest Portland. “She is like that little angel on your shoulder.”

According to Matthews, Jewett has had an impact on many young adult Catholics in Portland who now do things like use linen shopping bags and buy coffee beans in bulk to make their own brew.

“She helped me see this all from a biblical perspective, how we are all called to be stewards of the earth,” said Matthews.

One evening Matthews, Jewett and their friends were conversing about what kind of patron saints they’d be if they could. The consensus was that Jewett would be the patron of worms.

Jewett, who has lived in Portland for three years, grew up in El Paso, Texas. Her parents have a strong Franciscan spirituality and live without frills. She recalls her brother once having an adolescent outburst, declaring, “I don’t want to live simply anymore!” By contrast, Jewett has accepted that it is good for the soul to live without excess.

She recognizes that she is only able to attempt the no-waste campaign because she lives in Portland, where people understand and value her goals.

“A lot of people don’t have that choice,” she said. “Maybe they are on food stamps or their stores don’t sell bulk or maybe they need to do their shopping by bus and it doesn’t work to carry around a bunch of glass jars. I get that. But as long as people try to do what they can with what they have, our world will be a much better place.”

Learn more

Amanda Jewett’s website and blog: