Tray Chic

Ashley Thorne

Many campuses have rolled out a new initiative on the assembly line of campus sustainability projects: trayless cafeterias. Some institutions, such as the University of Maine at Farmington, have a permanent no-tray policy, while others are testing it out with short-term pilots.  

Why are colleges taking out trays? Are they trying to put an end to tray-sledding? Do they think this will cut down on food fights? Time Magazine explains:

The reasoning goes like this: when students are allowed to use trays, they tend to roam around the cafeteria grabbing food with abandon until space on the tray runs out. If you remove their trays, you make it impossible for them to carry a surplus of dishes, and they will make their selections more carefully and be satisfied with less food overall. That saves on food. Further, getting rid of trays means dishwashers have less to wash. That saves on water and energy.

So the rationale is both environmental and economic (and it helps counteract the freshman fifteen). But according to the 2008 document “The Business and Cultural Acceptance Case for Trayless Dining” by food services giant Aramark, there is a third underlying principle—creating “social awareness.” This means that trayless dining:          

  • Supports education and awareness of environmental issues.         
  • Reinforces institutions’ sustainability initiatives.
  • Encourages students to participate in a “green” initiative that has both a personal 
    and community impact.
  • Reinforces sustainability awareness on a daily basis. 

Aramark remarks that the social, economic, and environmental reasons for trayless dining make it “a true Triple Bottom Line initiative, further supporting campus sustainability.”

Colleges’ pilot programs typically survey students on their experience. At UCLA, for example, students were asked to rank their satisfaction on points such as, “Ability to carry empty dishes from table to return station,” “Increased room on tables,” and “Water conservation from not washing trays.” In general, students are amenable to changing their cafeteria routine.

But at Yale, de-trayed students felt betrayed. 

According to the Yale Daily News, “It took less than a week for Commons Dining Hall to dump its experiment with trayless dining” after receiving only six comments in support of the program and 200 requests for its reversal. Some students were reported to have left their dishes stacked high on the table in protest, and others complained of increased messes without trays to catch spills.

Writing at the Claremont Conservative, Charles Johnson notes that trayless frustration isn’t limited to Yale: “I spoke with some students at Pomona College regarding the tray ban at their campus and they inform me that Frary [the College dining hall] has become just filthy now that students have no trays. Excess food, rather than falling on trays, falls on the table and the dining hall staff has an already limited work force to keep the place clean.”

A commenter on the Claremont Conservative posting about Yale facetiously observes:

Yale's problem is that they didn't go far enough. If you're going to ban trays, then you should also ban plates and cups if you want to be eco-friendly. Have the students cup their hands, and just dump the food and drink right into their cupped hands. What could go wrong?

But colleges don’t have to go to extremes to get the point across. That third rationale, “social awareness,” is the most important goal. Like the campus-driven movement to ban bottled water, trayless dining is mostly symbolic. Those who seek to use higher education as an incubator for the sustainability movement know that to transform people’s mindsets, they need only require small changes in everyday habits. When we are confronted with trivial daily lifestyle choices, we are constantly reminded of how we’ve been told we ought to behave.

Leaders of other activist movements have used this technique before. Feminists succeeded in getting us all to stop and worry over titles and third person pronouns (Is it ‘he or she’? Mailperson? Ms.?). They also achieved the substitution of the word gender for sex, signifying that “sexual identity” is socially constructed, not biologically assigned.

In the same way, when college students juggle plates and cups and silverware on their way through the cafeteria, they are obliged to think about sustainability every day at every meal. Sustainability advocates know that trayless dining is not going to change the world; they achieve victory simply by getting inside people’s heads.

Because sustainability initiatives seem so trivial, most people don’t think they are harmful, as illustrated by one person’s response to our list of ten reasons to oppose the campus sustainability movement:

I am unconvinced...As a counterexample, see the University of Chicago’s page on sustainability on campus: There’s nothing more controversial than recycling batteries and minimizing the use of leaf blowers.

Yes, Chicago’s webpage, with an eco-tip of the month and information about this year’s Earth Week, seems perfectly inoffensive. And many sustainability programs are strictly concerned with its environmental stewardship aspect, not its social and economic aspects. But at the same time, the sustainability movement is unmistakably bent on changing attitudes, outlooks, and behavior. And like the feminists, sustainability advocates have been successful in their mission to act as our conscience. We are reminded of this every time we catch ourselves wondering, “Oh wait, can I say that?” or “ this eco-ethical?”

The last paragraphs of the Yale Daily News article are telling:

Director of Residential Dining Regenia Phillips said she believes Yale could still go trayless, but said she believes the culture among students has to change first.

It won’t work until it’s cool not to use a tray,” she said.

Marcus Strong ’11, who serves as project head for the Student Taskforce for Environmental Partnership, said he and other STEP coordinators are committed to changing mind-sets on environmental issues, and plan toencourage trayless dining in the residential colleges this year. (emphasis added)

It won’t work until it’s cool, but Yale is the exception; at most campuses where trayless dining has been tried, it is cool. Students don’t need to be convinced to comply—all they need to be told is that this is the right thing to do. The few at Yale and Pomona who have resisted are the movement’s unforeseen dissenters. Perhaps sustainatopians call them tray-tors.  

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