Earlier this week the News reported on the growing trend toward trayless dining at colleges around the country. Yale University Dining Services is considering following suit and eliminating trays from Yale’s dining halls, though there are several challenges standing in the way.
The issue balances environmentalism and convenience, as well as practical logistics, and between keeping and rejecting trays there is no obvious choice.
The elimination of trays has been shown to reduce food waste and to conserve water and detergent. At Middlebury, trayless dining has decreased waste by .75 ounces per meal, and a study by Aramark, Yale’s former dining provider, showed that dining halls without trays produce 25 to 30 percent less waste than those with them. Brown now uses 4,800 fewer gallons of water each week by not having trays to wash, and dining halls without trays also consume less detergent.
Without trays, however, the dining experience is markedly different. Some say it’s more like eating at home. Except, of course, there is no way to serve up seconds at the table. And the kitchen is much farther away.
To understand this issue better, we tried trayless dining this week. Some results were expected, some were surprising.
First, we ate less. With no tray to easily carry food, we chose to take only one dish at a time (since that was all we could carry), instead of taking soup, salad and a main dish at once. And we put less food on each plate, afraid of spilling or dropping a fully loaded dish.
With so little food made available by each trip to the servery, we had to make multiple trips. Such travel was obviously an annoyance, but more so for its social disturbance than its caloric requirement: Conversations, we found, were hard to maintain when diners were routinely leaving the table to get more food.
And each trip inspired prayer. Holding even a knife, fork and plate in one hand while dishing up was a hazard, as was carrying those items and a drink back to a table.
Of course, we spilled some. And instead of landing nicely on trays, our food and drinks splattered tables and floors. We cleaned up what we could, but our messes ultimately required mops and sponges to clean fully.
So we’re not convinced that trayless dining is a promising option, despite its environmental benefit. Perhaps the best choice is to encourage behavior modification.
Were trays to be available in dining halls but located inconveniently, behavioral economics tells us fewer people would grab trays when they eat — but of course those of us bothered or scared by lack of trays could still count on them. Moving trays away from the entrance and the servery would discourage a number of Yalies from taking them, but would not prevent us all from taking advantage of their benefit.
In this way, waste and water could be reduced while students could still enjoy the current convenience, security and cleanliness afforded by trays.
Call it a compromise between environmental friendliness and everyday practicality — a compromise we’re happy to stomach.