Building a better soda dispenser

September 8, 2016

Limiting food waste, providing locally farmed and sourced meals and working with students who study food system sustainability issues on projects, dining sustainability manager Piper Fernwey’s work for the cause runs the gamut. But now, she is thinking outside of the box. “More sustainable options, better options.” That’s the tagline of her newest project: a one-of-a-kind soda machine to be placed in the college’s very own dining halls.

Fernwey, who is an employee of Bon Appetit, which provides Denison with its dining experience, is putting more natural drinks in the hands of students. The idea started as a collaboration between her and Ashley Graff ’14, an environmental studies major who completed research about the environmental degradation caused by the Coca-Cola Company. After Graff graduated, Fernwey took the idea and ran with it, with the goal to provide local, sustainable sodas in Denison’s dining halls.

And she has succeeded. Huffman Hall sports an entirely self-contained unit that dispenses fresh local flavors from Simple Products Syrups, such as Summer Strawberry, Coffee Toffee, and Red Raspberry. For those who do not like sugary sodas, these flavors are ideal, and they are a lighter fruit soda option, made from fruit that owner Michael Jaeb grows on his farm in Millersburg, Ohio, only about 50 miles away from Granville.

For others who prefer a more traditional soda taste, the machine also dispenses flavors such as Columbus Cola, Lemon Lime, and Sarsaparilla. These “artisan sodas,” sourced from Columbus’ Rambling House Soda, taste similar to Coca-Cola, Sprite, and Root Beer soft drinks, except they contain absolutely no corn syrup, artificial flavoring, or preservatives. “Not only will this machine provide more soda variety,” said Fernwey, “but they are also much healthier and richer in taste.”

This project aligns with one of Denison’s sustainability goals – to get to 70 percent of the food and drink on campus to be locally and responsibly sourced.

This project didn’t come together easily, however. Building the vending unit required many modifications to existing soda machine models. “Because the soda has no preservatives, we had to find a way to chill the locally grown soda while it is in the machine waiting to be dispensed,” she said. Working with a variety of different companies, brought together by Buckeye Beverage, Fernwey built a custom, portable natural soda dispenser, which is “essentially a soda machine on top of a refrigerator.”

Her engineering background came in handy, when consulting on designs for coolant lines, pumps, and carbonators: “There was no machine available anywhere we looked, so I worked with a company that was willing to try what I knew would work.” She added, “Ergonomics were important too, having it be as easy to use as a regular soda machine, and being ADA complaint, and portable so we could use it at outdoor picnics/move it as dining halls were getting renovated. In the end, the machine is installed with the exact same beverage dispenser model as you would drink Coca-Cola from.” Denison and Bon Appétit are leading the way in the sustainable soda machine market, as this craft soda dispenser is truly unique. “It’s never been done before,” said Fernwey, “but all it took was just a little creativity and a lot of teamwork to try something new and better.”

While the machine is situated in Huffman Dining Hall, Fernwey hopes someday to be able to oversee the addition of more machines, to give students more options all over campus. The new machine is portable, so it can be used at indoor or outdoor events all around campus.

This project aligns with one of Denison’s sustainability goals – to get to 70 percent of the food and drink on campus to be locally and responsibly sourced. “Part of this starts with the student’s soda palette”, Fernwey says, “The hope is that this machine can get students out of their comfort zone and try something new - having more options.”

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