February 5, 2008

Dining Halls Evaluate Use of Trays

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Dylan Hughes ’08, the student supervisor of Appel Commons, has noticed there is a problem with the amount of food being wasted at Cornell.
The problem of waste, according to Hughes, is rooted in the use of trays.
“It’s helped by the tray, because it’s all you can eat and you have all of this room. People eat a bite of this, a bite of that,” Hughes said. “I think people would definitely take less food if they didn’t have the trays.”
Colleges and universities across the country are participating in a new dining hall phenomenon of removing trays in an attempt to decrease the amount of food waste.
Colby College in Maine is one of the colleges participating in the movement. Currently Colby has not completely eliminated the use of trays but has some “trayless” days in the dining halls each week.
According to Varun Avasthi, director of dining services, Colby came up with the concept in 2002 when students came together to brainstorm ideas to cut the amount of food wasted in the dining halls. The decision was based on goals to increase sustainability, but has had positive financial results as well.
“We have noted that we have two-thirds less post consumer waste on trayless days,” Avasthi said. “We waste less food which means that we can divert more money from our budget to earmark towards buying sustainable products.”
While Colby has noticed positive effects from their decision to not use trays daily, they are not ready to completely abolish trays. Avasthi plans on leaving that decision up to the students, once they have been fully informed of the proposed plan.
In terms of the other schools, Avasthi is not sure this will work everywhere.
“Every school has a different approach to sustainability and what they are trying to accomplish in regard to student satisfaction, sustainability, financial constraints and other such factors. One size does not fit all,” Avasthi said.
Paul Seeber, the operation manager of Appel Commons, is not sure that eliminating trays would be conducive to the way Appel is set up.
Seeber estimates that around 300 people eat on the third floor of the dining hall per night, either in the upstairs dining room or in the private meeting rooms, where many professors host student dinners.
“Eliminating trays would be inconsiderate to those people,” Seeber said.
While Cornell has had preliminary discussions about the possibility of trayless dining, Seeber believes that other methods of eliminating food waste would be equally, if not more successful.
While working at Robert Purcell Community Center, Seeber allowed a student film crew to come in and photograph the food wasted by each student. The group then showed the students how much food they had wasted, and asked them why they were wasting so much food.
Seeber said this worked very well in discouraging students to waste less food, but that the group only stayed stationed in RPCC for a few days.
Since Seeber has been operations manager, he has worked to eliminate food waste at Appel in other ways.
“One thing I’ve done here as manager is decrease plate size. The plates are now an inch shorter and an inch and a half less wide,” Seeber said.
Since Appel opened, there has been a gradual replacement of plates, as the old ones become worn out. Today, there are only smaller plates in use.
While Seeber acknowledges that when trays are not used, less food is wasted, he said he would never discourage customers from using trays. Currently about ten percent of students don’t use trays, Seeber said.
“If there were any student groups promoting trayless dining, we could try it,” Seeber said. “In past years there have been some students coming in to weigh our edible waste and it was around four ounces per person about two years ago.”
Seeber mentioned that as students become acclimated to the dining hall, they learn to make better choices about how much food to take. According to Seeber, the amount of food waste generally sees a significant decrease throughout the academic year.
Seeber also considered the marketing possibility of angling the trayless dining around not only less food wasted, but also the potential for less calorie consumption.
While there are no immediate plans for Appel Commons to remove trays, Cornell Dining is not ruling anything out.
“Change is what we do. I think it would be a positive change for places that are not hindered by stairs,” Seeber said.