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This is your food: A look inside the DAC dehydration system

It’s safe to say the Johnson Center Dining Hall is an improvement from Belmont’s previous cafeteria: The complex seats more students, offers more dining options, features various themed seating sections and does this all while giving back to the planet.

During the planning stages of the Johnson Center, supervisors, including Director of Dining Services Kyle Grover, were looking for a food recovery system.

“We we’re looking for something that wouldn’t fill the waste stream. We’re trying to reduce it,” said Grover.

According to the Belmont University Sustainability Initiatives website, although Belmont has increased its physical footprint by 27 percent since 2000, the university has driven down its electrical consumption by the same rate in just the past three years.

Belmont has installed electric car charging stations, built a geothermal heating and cooling system, constructed five new green roofs, created new environmentally-focused student organizations, earned multiple green certifications and is now home to a dehydrating system located in the basement of the Johnson Center.

“We have five of them. Each one holds 450 pounds of food waste. Within 24 hours that turns into 35 pounds of solid waste,” said Grover.

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A dehydration system uses extreme heat to evaporate the water in food and other non-plastic materials in order to reduce trash volume. The process begins by “pulping” the food and non-plastic materials.

“It takes all the food, paper towels, cardboard, everything like that, napkins, anything that’s not plastic. It grinds it up,” said Grover.

After the food is ground, it is taken downstairs to the extractors that carry out the dehydrating process.

“Our dumpster is picked up once a week now. In the old dining hall, we had two classic dumpsters that were picked up daily. We think we have reduced our footprint by about 40 percent,” Grover said.

The dehydrators have no doubt reduced trash volume, but the product is still considered solid waste and cannot currently be used as a compost soil additive. If the product gets wet again, it is unusable and cannot be used as a fertilizer, said Belmont senior and student leader of Enactus Brett Wisse.

“It is susceptible to fungus if it gets wet again. It gives a lot of bad smells off. If it develops that fungus it will not be good for the plants,” Wisse said.

Dining Services is working with Enactus– Belmont’s entrepreneurship organization– and University of Tennessee soil scientist Dr. Forbes Walker to find a use for the dehydrated food.

“My plan is to get them tested for nutrient value. After the UT soil scientist came, he thinks it could have a lot of value as an animal feed or a pet food,” said Wisse.

Wisse reached out to Mars Inc., which makes both candy products and pet food, in an attempt to start using the dehydrated food as animal feed. However, at this point the raw material supply may be too small to continue this idea.

With an unsellable product, some may wonder why Belmont did not choose to compost instead.

“It takes a lot of space,” Wisse said.

It also smells worse than the current hot plastic and food undertones that can be experienced on the first floor of the Johnson Center, Wisse said.

Even though it turns out the composting system many have referred to as such is not actually compost piles, the dehydrators are still reducing trash volume by immense amounts and contributing to a greener Belmont.

This article was written by Taylor Berghoff.

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