We’ve all done it. It’s 6 p.m. in your residential college, and you’re rushing to grab a quick dinner with friends before running to section. The dining hall is packed, and since you’re starving, you grab anything to whet your appetite: a burger here, a scoop of fried rice there, a handful of carrots, and sure, why not pile on a few brownies and a slice of cake. At the end of the meal, you survey your plate: several dishes untouched, the burger only half-eaten and the desserts overwhelmed by the heap of cups and bowls that litter the table.
Campus dialogue about reducing dining hall waste has thus far centered on the trayless initiatives pioneered by the Student Taskforce for Environmental Partnership (STEP). As STEP points out, food waste is a huge problem in the United States — as much as half the food that American farmers grow every year ends up in landfills. That’s more than 44 million tons of food wasted. Although going trayless may be beneficial to reducing food waste, focusing exclusively on traylessness has caused us to lose sight of the big picture. Yale could do much more to reduce waste by restructuring the entire meal plan. The current plan encourages consumption of excess food, does not match with student preferences, and is fundamentally unfair. I suggest the creation of a new à la carte meal system, in which students would pay for food items individually using their ID cards. This system would help solve Yale’s problem with food waste while better meeting student needs and increasing fairness.
Colleges have become infamous for their all-you-can-eat buffets: an environment that provides an incentive for waste and overeating. Yale’s current system, in which students swipe their ID cards once in exchange for as much food as they want, encourages students to take more food than they can actually eat, and consume more food than they really need. After all, why choose between cookies, brownies and ice cream when you can have all three — for no extra charge? Since we aren’t paying for food items individually, we’re likely to put a lot less thought into what we take. A recent study of Cal Dining, at UC Berkeley, showed that switching from buffet-style dining to a à la carte system reduced food waste by over 10 percent at every meal. Taking a tray may compound the problem of wasted food, as STEP points out, but even those who don’t take a tray are still likely to serve themselves more food than they need. There’s simply no marginal cost to doing so.
An à la carte system would also be much better matched to student preferences. Rather than eating three large meals per day, many Yalies combine a hodgepodge of different food items to meet their nutritional needs: a quick coffee and granola bar at midmorning, a light lunch in the dining hall, some late-night sushi or a sandwich from Durfee’s. The current meal plan inefficiently fails to accommodate this style of eating. By contrast, à la carte plans would allow students more flexibility, without penalizing students who don’t fit neatly into one of the current meal plan categories. Students would have the ability to purchase small meals and snacks without wasting a swipe. This would also lead to savings for students, who would spend less overall on food while at college, except for a very small minority who actually consume vast quantities of very expensive foods.
Fairness is also at stake here: why should students who eat less, say a 5’1” bookworm, pay as much for their meals as a football player trying to bulk up? Lighter eaters should not be forced to subsidize the rest of the student body. Put simply, those who eat more should pay more. We choose and pay for ourselves when we eat out at restaurants, as well as when we buy food at a grocery store. There’s no reason that this basic level of fairness should end at the doors of the college dining hall.
If Yale Dining really wants to help the environment, reduce waste and improve student choice, the creation of à la carte meal plans would go a long way. While some logistical obstacles are inevitable — changing the current system of desks and attendants would be necessary, for example — modifying Yale’s meal plan options would have a powerful impact.
Elizabeth Chrystal is a sophomore in Davenport College.