Students at Middlebury College perform juggling acts three times a day, navigating through crowded dining halls with cups, plates and cutlery in hand. A sign by the servery explains it all: In an effort to conserve energy, Middlebury banished trays from its dining halls in the summer of 2007.
Without a tray, students are less likely to take more food than they can consume in one sitting, reducing the quantity of waste — or so the theory goes. Eliminating trays also decreases the amount of water and chemicals used in washing the trays.
While Middlebury’s environmentally friendly policy may seem appropriate in Vermont — home of the “Green Mountains” — roughly 300 schools across the country have also experimented with the idea, and Yale may soon join their ranks, new Director of Residential Operations Regenia Phillips said. A formal time line for change, however, has been delayed by logistical complications and opposition from some college masters, she said.
Plus, according to a poll conducted by the News, student disinterest will likely serve to further complicate the matter.
Matthew Biette, the director of Middlebury Dining, reported that since implementing trayless dining at Middlebury, waste has decreased by about .75 ounces per meal. Students, he said, are doing a better job of selecting only what they are going to eat. Additionally, he said, there are fewer employee injuries, which can occur when an dining staffer slips carrying a heavy load of wet trays.
“We serve a million and a half meals,” Biette said, noting that having no trays would lead to “huge savings.”
Last semester, Brown University calculated those savings. In a pilot trayless program in one dining hall, the school saved about 4,800 gallons of water per week, said Brown Dining’s Director of Administration Ann Hoffman.
But Phillips — who implemented trayless dining last year as the director of dining services at the University of Northern Texas — noted that the configuration of Yale’s dining halls poses challenges to such a transition. Most residential college kitchens, for instance, are an elevator ride away from the dining hall, requiring trays in some capacity to transport dishes from one floor to the next.
“It is a great idea for conserving waste and for reducing our chemical usage in our dish room,” she said. “But before you do an initiative you really need to think it through all the way.”
This summer, dining provider Aramark — with whom Yale did not renew its contract when the University launched its own dining operation last year — published a study showing that schools without trays reduce waste by 25 to 30 percent. Since the study was released, about 250 Aramark-managed campuses have gone trayless and more are expected to follow suit, Aramark representative Karen Cutler said.
As of yet, none of these campuses has reversed the change, she added.
But in contrast to the smooth transition at Middlebury, The Harvard Crimson reported that last year’s trial period of “Trayless Thursdays” at Harvard’s Quincy House was tabled after just a month. Harvard Dining Services declined to comment on why they canceled the measure.
Biette proposed an explanation for the less than enthusiastic response by the Harvard community.
“They’re trying it in the middle of semester one day a week and there’s uproar,” he said. “Do it beginning of semester. If you do it four days a week and then take it away it’s an inconvenience.”
A GREEN INCONVENIENCE
The University of Connecticut’s Storrs Campus implemented a pilot program for trayless dining in one dining hall. After a study revealed that they had reduced food waste by 19 percent, the university implemented the program campuswide at the beginning of August. Despite student protests, the trayless initiative remained. Almost six months later, UConn sophomore Rebecca Haley suggested that students seem to have gotten used to the idea.
Still, according to an e-mailed News poll conducted last week, trayless dining is generally seen as an inconvenience to students who fill up their trays with second helpings and dessert.
In a poll sent last week to roughly 600 undergraduates, 92.7 percent of the 200 respondents said they often or always use a tray, and 63 percent said they were opposed to removing them.
“That would be terribly inconvenient and cause more of a traffic jam in already crowded dining halls as students go back for seconds,” one respondent wrote, reflecting the logistical concerns of many of the students who took the poll.
But students at Middlebury seem to be overcoming the hassle. While some students protested for three weeks after the original implementation, Biette said, students on Middlebury’s campus hardly gripe over trays today. Kristin Haas, a sophomore at Middlebury, said that she arrived at Middlebury after the trayless measure was in effect.
“I think kids wouldn’t think about it unless they were asked about it,” Haas said.
Back at Yale, the Student Taskforce for Environmental Partnership is asking students to shoulder the inconvenience with or without an administrative mandate, STEP Director Jessica Bolhack ’11 said.
“Dining hall services don’t have to get rid of trays for Yalies to start making this choice now,” she said. “In fact, they won’t get rid of trays in whatever capacity unless there is student support.”
In addition to encouraging students to take the initiative, Bolhack said, STEP is working with Dining Services to work out the logistics of trayless dining as an official policy. Removing trays for breakfast, she offered, might be a helpful starting point because the issues of traffic and dish quantity would be avoided.
Masters of residential colleges are also being approached with the possibility of removing trays from the dining hall, Phillips said.
Berkeley College Master Marvin Chun said he believes that student initiative is the best way to implement trayless dining at Yale.
“I don’t imagine everyone would want to or should go trayless so it should be voluntary,” he wrote in an e-mail. “ If it’s voluntary, then there’s no policy to set because anyone can do that now.”
But if trays do become a memory, they might soon become a distant one.
Especially as new classes of Middlebury students matriculate, Haas said, student protests — like trays — fade away.