The Weight of Waste

Why remove trays from “all-you-can-eat” cafeterias? To avoid the routine piles of food waste.

In April, a student-led campaign at Virginia Tech weighed food waste for a week as a baseline for comparison to a week without trays. What they found, might startle you. Have a look. (Photos courtesy of VT Dietetic Intern Andy Sarjahani, the campaign organizer.)

For your eyes only, photo courtesy of Andy SarjahaniIn addiction terms, trays enable waste. By allowing students to pile on more food than they could possibly consume, trays encourage the sampler strategy and the giant eyes, small stomach syndrome.

Not that the slabs of plastic alone are the problem. Rather, it’s the combination of the tray and “all-you-can-eat” facility that yields massive waste. (And I suppose students themselves share some of the blame.) But reformers are pushing for trayless cafeterias because the “all-you-care-to-eat” (in diningspeak) model is entrenched.

Over the week, Techies averaged about a half-pound (0.47 lbs) of edible waste per student per meal and 1,400 pounds of compostable waste per day. (The student sorters separated edible leftovers from inedible items like banana peels.) Sadly, that number isn’t much higher than results at other schools.

Next week, we’ll look at what happened when Virginia Tech removed the trays. Until then, I’m curious if this topic brings back memories from your school days? Also, are there any factors that contribute to food waste at your school or workplace?

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18 Comments

  1. Posted May 22, 2008 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    Oooh, cliffhanger! Can’t wait to find out the results.

  2. Posted May 22, 2008 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    Amazing study. I’m really surprised at how much food was wasted.

    On the flip side, another problem with the trays and the “all-you-can-eat” mentality is the clean your plate theory, taking too much food or a sample plate, and consuming all of it, thus eating too much, leading to weight gain.

    Trays do not equate well with portion control.

  3. Jonathan
    Posted May 22, 2008 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    Ah, the suspense! Hang on to that cliff…it could be Monday. But with Memorial Day, it might be Tuesday.

    Thanks, Lisa. As much as I’d hate to hear this when I was in college–paying for the food you take (a la carte, in diningspeak) seems to solve both problems. What do you think?

  4. Posted May 22, 2008 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Makes sense. It dovetails with the studies showing that we consume more movie theater popcorn if it comes in bigger tubs. What was amazing about that study was that people ate more EVEN WHEN THE FOOD WAS STALE.

    Ya gotta love marketing!

    One other note: I’m currently living in Oklahoma, where buffets and “cafeterias” are still commonplace. By contrast, there are only a smattering back in Seattle. Is it any wonder that OK ranks ninth in obesity?

  5. Rosa
    Posted May 22, 2008 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    I work in an office building downtown, so we’re surrounded by lunch-only and lunch-and-breakfast places that cater to office workers.

    The biggest source of food waste I see is the mandatory sides – either you get fries & pickle whether you want to or not during rush times, or you can ask that they not be included but you’re paying for them anyway. So people think, well, maybe I’ll eat some of them.

    There’s a lot less waste from the pizza, sub, & gyro shops than the grill places, but there’s as many grill places as all the rest put together.

  6. Jonathan
    Posted May 22, 2008 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    When I grow up, I want to be Brian Wansink. His consumption studies are so interesting.

    Buffet-laden Oklahoma…hence the term “Boomer Sooner?!”

  7. Robert
    Posted May 22, 2008 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    They mentioned “compostable” waste. Is this opposed to the edible waste? Paper, fruit peels and cores, coffee grounds etc. are compostable but not edible. Also do they actually compost any of this?

  8. Jonathan
    Posted May 22, 2008 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    Yep, that’s the distinction–edible vs. non-edible. They don’t currently compost at Virginia Tech, but they’re looking into doing so.

    In case you’re curious the daily averages were:
    1165.9 lbs edible waste
    232.7 lbs compostable waste (inedible)

  9. jessica
    Posted May 22, 2008 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    I am in college right now and the way they set up the cafeteria’s is one of the many reasons I feel lucky enough to be able to afford apartment living where I can make my own food. Most of the food is not healthy and not consumed by the kids. Part of the problem could be due to this. When I was looking for salad, or some sort of alternative to the nachos and meat I would put a bit of white or yellow looking salad on my plate just to eat something. After a couple of bites it felt so unsatisfying that I couldn’t eat the rest of it.

    Also, hearing about how they will work to get this into action would be great! I would be interested in following their footsteps on my campus if they get some sort of action accomplished that will help lessen food waste.

  10. Julie
    Posted May 22, 2008 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    I go to UC San Diego and although I’m positive that a tremendous amount of food is being wasted in our cafeterias, I am also happy to see that we don’t have an all-you-can-eat type cafeteria. Our meal plan consists of “dining dollars,” which essentially are used like real dollars to “buy” food in the dining halls. This way, you’re way more likely to take a second to think about what you’re getting and how much you can eat. If this system can be instituted in a large university setting such as UCSD, I believe there should be an effort made to apply it elsewhere.

  11. HokieX
    Posted May 25, 2008 at 12:37 am | Permalink

    Hopefully they gave the trays to the students. They were great for sledding on campus.

    This is a good idea. I know I wasted a ton of food in Dietrick as did all of my friends. The mashed potatoes were great for making sculptures.

    At VT we were given the choice between dining dollars like Julie mentions or a meal plan at the all you can eat places.

  12. Ashley
    Posted May 26, 2008 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    I worked for a very short time as a dishwasher in my high school cafeteria and I still remember the huge pools of ketchup that kids would make on their plates and fool around with – sticking their cups in the mess etc. Probably not the biggest waste but sure says something about their attitude.

  13. Molly
    Posted May 27, 2008 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    I went to VT too, and I hear you about the wasted food at Dietrick. The thing is, though, some people really need the all-you-can-eat meal option. Tech has a LOT of student athletes. But by all means, give us the trays!! Surely half of them take a temporary leave-of-absence from the cafeteria every time it snows…

  14. Posted May 27, 2008 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for the questions, and I’m sorry I wasn’t quicker with my response.

    I think most college students are reluctant to take a la carte 1) unless it’s included in their meal plan 2) unless they have a storage place in their dorm room.

    I know that some food, but not all, is included in most meal plans. But, in most dorm rooms, storage is at a premium, plus, college students aren’t exactly known for being super clean. I can see bugs being a problem if too many students took food to their dorm rooms.

    Just a thought……….

  15. Jonathan
    Posted May 28, 2008 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    Molly, how about this deal: You can keep the all-you-can-eat and the trays–as long as you just use them for sledding!

    LisaN,
    A la carte doesn’t usually mean grocery style food plan, but a pay as you go cafeteria. Also, I think you win the understatement of the week: “college students aren’t exactly known for being super clean.”
    They sure aren’t!

  16. Posted May 29, 2008 at 2:06 am | Permalink

    I stumbled upon your blog on accident, a friend posted a link here and I identified with your issues about the all-you-can-eat mentality, so I just wanted to share what it’s like where I work…

    I work at a well-known chain restaurant where I see this mentality day in and day out. Cafeterias and buffets and the most obvious source of waste when it comes to all-you-can-eat but any restaurant that offers free refills is just as guilty. Think about how many times someone has asked if you would like more of something. It’s always more more more. As a server, that’s my job, to make sure your plates and glasses are never empty until you’re completely satisfied. And of course, the refills are free, so people take them. I can’t even tell you how many times I have thrown away entire salads completely untouched, it makes me sick to see how much food gets tossed just because someone took the refill and then didn’t touch it. It’s fresh, perfectly edible food but everyone at the table just got too full. And they’re going back to work/to a movie/out shopping and won’t be home for hours, so there’s no use taking leftovers home.

    Great blog, you have some really interesting information here.

  17. Daryl
    Posted July 28, 2008 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, I guess that people who don’t go to colleges or universities right now are really suprised by this. I have become alot more concious about my food choices but it wasnt too long ago that I would just get two plates filled with food. Not because I was particularly that hungry, but because the food in general was often rank with the exception of two things. Once we all sampled what was good, we would go back for even more of that option leaving the rest. Recently, my school started buying more local produce and teh food has significantly improved, but that wont solve the problem. THe problem is that students use food as a comofort and often an excuse to socialize. What you shoulk look into are the late night places to eat on a college campus and see the comsuption there. Grease was everyone’s favorite at 2 in the morning, while studying for a midterm.

  18. sarah
    Posted October 9, 2008 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    I hope that remaining trayless helps students at VT become more aware of waste. Even in elementary schools, waste is discouraged and portion sizes have decreased. Elementary children are recycling on campus; eating healthier; becoming more physically active and feeling more a part of helping us become a more healthy nation. If these young children can do it, then college kids can certainly take on more of a leadership role for the next generation….

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