Why aren’t we “going trayless???”

Posted on February 23rd, 2009 by

Recently, a student queried Dining Service Director Steve, about the possibility of eliminating trays as a way of saving energy and reducing food waste. Here’s what I had to say about that matter, back in September, when colleges across the country rolled out their new trayless programs. (The piece was published in the Free Press in Mankato, but I can’t seem to pry it out of their archive, so I’m just reprinting my own copy.)

September 2008

University of Minnesota Dining Services has announced it will eliminated cafeteria trays in an effort to reduce food waste. The rationale: if diners have to balance their plates, bowls, flatware, glasses and napkins on their hands alone, they take less food, and hence discard less food. A pilot project at the University last spring found that diners wasted an average of 1.5 fewer ounces of food per day. Aaramark, a national food service provider, reports that fifty to sixty percent of its college clients plan to go trayless this fall, and estimates that food waste will drop twenty-five to thirty percent as a result.

There’s no doubt about it; we Americans throw away a pile of food. A 2004 University of Arizona study estimated that households discard about fifteen percent of the still-useable food they purchase each week. The trayless cafeteria is a noble response to a serious problem. It doesn’t cost anything, it’s relatively easy to implement, and in addition to reducing food waste it also decreases the use of water and detergent. Barring the evolution of multi-armed students, or the development of hip, portable trays you can carry in your backpack and whip out at mealtime, eliminating cafeteria trays will unquestionably reduce food waste. What’s not to love about it?

Well, consider why it works: eliminating trays makes it inconvenient for people to take more food. Simple. But in fact, eliminating trays doesn’t just make life difficult for the food-waster; it makes the experience of getting food inconvenient, awkward and unpleasant for everyone. Even the most modest eater is still left juggling a full glass, a full plate, a wad of silverware and napkins, and a two-hundred-dollar biology textbook…as she reaches for her wallet. Negotiating all this stuff while using a wheelchair or other mobility aid, will turn her juggling act into a balancing act as well. (To be fair, Aaramark recommends making trays available for disabled people and “people who demand one.”)

Well, so what if it’s inconvenient? College cafeterias aren’t fine dining establishments. What’s the harm if one more layer of unpleasantness gets slathered on top of an already-unpleasant experience? ¬†There’s an undeniable logic to this way of thinking-especially for those of us who went to college in the sixties, seventies or eighties. But such logic flies in the face of current college students’ thinking about food. The college dining service of today bears little resemblance to those earlier joints, which doled out identical portions of unidentifiable meat and limp vegetables to students who knew better than to hope for better. In contrast, college students today often cite the quality of the food as a factor in their college choice. In such an atmosphere of increased attention to food, does it really make sense to render a fundamental aspect of the experience deeply unpleasant?

Rather than decreasing the pleasure of eating in order to reduce our environmental impact, why not use the college dining experience as an opportunity to educate student diners about the pleasures of eating-a pleasure that can actually encompass environmental responsibility without sacrificing the comfort of knowing your glass will still be full when you reach your table. Rather than relying on diners’ laziness and dislike of discomfort, why not cultivate their capacity to appreciate food well-an approach that will serve them better in a world that will be only too willing to provide them with extra-large trays.

There is an approach to food waste that makes such pleasure possible: eliminate the all-you-can-eat plan, and charge diners for the food they actually take. In 1998, the Dining Service at Gustavus Adolphus College developed a “declining balance” system, on which diners select items ala carte and pay only for the items they choose, a system that encourages people to choose only what they think they can eat. The result: food waste dropped a whopping eighty percent.

Gustavus isn’t resting on its clean-plate laurels yet; we still throw away enough food at meals to prompt one student to make a documentary film about the problem. And we do have another challenge; the expanding use of disposable to-go containers. We’ll tackle that one this fall, when we introduce “GustieWare,” reuseable takeout containers that diners borrow and then return to the cafeteria, where they are washed and put back into circulation. Time will tell whether interest and enthusiasm will be enough to help the containers make their way back to the cafeteria, once their contents have been devoured.

Michael Pollan suggests that eating is a vote you cast three times a day.¬† In fact, our three meals can be much more than exercises in democracy, and what better place to realize their potential than an educational institution? Whether or not colleges and universities utilize that potential, dining services are educational units of their institutions. They are the ideal settings in which to cultivate students’ capacities to make thoughtful choices about issues that span the curriculum: environment and ecology; nutrition and health; business and finance; ethics and politics; aesthetics and taste.

It’s right there, waiting for you in the cafeteria line. Maybe you’d like a tray to hold all that.


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