In Wednesday’s News, Elizabeth Chrystal wrote an interesting argument for a move towards à la carte dining (“At mealtime, more thoughtful choices,” March 30). Instead of taking as much food as they want in the current buffet style, students would make individual orders and only pay for what they eat. While the promise of a 10 percent reduction in food waste, like the one seen at UC Berkeley when they made such a change, would likely be unattainable through trayless dining alone, the drawbacks of a switch to à la carte at Yale would far outweigh the benefits.
Moving away from buffet-style dining halls would impose a series of significant costs. Initially, there’s the upfront cost of completely reconstructing the dining hall serveries. Whereas we currently swipe in at the entrance of the dining hall and are free to take as much food as we want, an à la carte system would require reformatting each servery to eliminate the buffets that serve as the centerpiece of the dining halls, requiring space for separate lines where students can order and pick up their entrées, salads, sandwiches and drinks. Space for longer lines to allow for tabulation and payment would also need to be built in. These construction and logistical costs would quickly add up.
In addition to these initial, fixed costs, the day-to-day costs of operation would also rise substantially. Consider the labor expenses. In the system that we have now, meals are prepared ahead of time and dining hall workers are able to troubleshoot problems on the floor and bring out food when dishes run out. An à la carte system would dictate keeping several workers at each individual food station with at least two for checkout in order to keep the lines moving. While each dining hall has an average of 12 workers now on the floor each shift, between a second person to swipe cards and, conservatively, two more workers staffing food stations, at least three more dining hall workers would be needed for each of Yale’s 12 college dining halls.
Increased time in line would be another significant cost. Gone would be the days of running into the dining hall to grab a quick sandwich after practice or before section. Especially with the college dining halls’ limited hours, peak dinner time with each menu item delivered individually would mean long lines for everything from a main course to a drink to paying. If you think waiting in line for chicken breasts at the grill takes a long time now, just wait until there are 15 others doing it in front of you.
The most significant cost of moving to à la carte dining, however, would be the almost assured decline in healthy eating. Filling individual orders would force the dining hall to appeal to the least common denominator, since selling to the pickiest eaters will still fill the stomachs of the more refined. This means doing away with healthier and more interesting entrées like lasagna, tilapia, and frittata in favor of pizza, pasta and French fries. Chicken finger day in the dining hall is a lot less exciting when every day is chicken finger day in the dining hall. À la carte dining also dissuades students from eating a well-balanced meal — if all you want to do is fill your stomach, it’s much easier to take one filling cheeseburger than it is to fill your plate with a little rice, a piece of chicken, a salad, and a piece of fruit, all of which would come separately, and at separate costs. Finally, we would likely see the demise of fruit and side salads at meals. You’re much less likely to take a risk on a slightly bruised 140-calorie banana or throw some extra lettuce, carrots, and tomatoes together for a 300-calorie salad if it’s going to cost another couple dollars at the register. Somehow, though, I feel that we’ll all still grab the 500-calorie sweet and salty magic bar for dessert.
Josh Rosmarin is a junior in Saybrook College.