Going Trayless: A Look Back at the Transition

This guest post comes from Alvina Lopez, who is pursuing a journalism degree from Ashford College and blogs on the topics of accredited online colleges. Below, she writes on her cafeteria experience from her undergrad days at Rice University, including the shift to traylessness.

As any college student knows, the cafeteria is a central locus of student interaction. It’s where we congregate to share the latest gossip, to commiserate over grades, and to just talk about what matters to us. It’s also where most students living on-campus consume their meals. At my own college cafeteria, the food wasn’t always great, but there were options aplenty–the carnivore section, the vegetarian section, the hamburger/pizza/fries section, the cereal dispensers, the salad bar, and so on. This abundance of choice astounded me when I first started school as a freshman.

Armed with a tray and an appetite, I’d navigate through the various sections, picking what looked good or at least smelled good. Something I noticed was that there are three very distinct types of eaters those who’d go straight for the same thing every day like pizza, those who’d inspect their food carefully before setting it on their trays, and those who’d grab a sampling of pretty much everything, the merits of which would be decided upon being seated. The latter was by far the most popular method of food selection. It was easy enough, as the trays provided ample space to fit everything.

But the waste I witnessed was astounding. By the time dinner was over, trashcans were filled with uneaten food. Since my father is a farmer who comes from a long line of family farmers, food waste was always considered a sin at home.  I can’t even count the number of times my father would say how important it was to finish everything.  I think being more intimately acquainted with where the food came from that it takes money and hard work to bring what we eat to the table, no matter where we buy it made my family understand and respect its importance more. Seeing all the waste at college thus came as a huge culture shock.
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When I returned for school my senior year, my campus had gone trayless. Among seniors especially, who had become so accustomed to eating with trays, talking about the change at dinner was a perennial topic of discussion. Reactions ranged from annoyed to furious. I heard everything from “how am I supposed to take my food up to my room now?” to “our school is getting cheap on us” to “this is going to make standing in line even worse.” Many students were suspicious of the reasons for eliminating trays, suggesting that the environmental benefits were being exaggerated only because the school wanted to save some money.

I myself was at first cynical about traylessness. I didn’t think it would make much of difference, regardless of the intentions behind the initiative. But then after a week or two, I noticed substantive changes in my own behavior and my fellow diners’.  People stayed at meals longer. We ate more slowly, since those who wanted seconds waited until the foot traffic slowed down. The whole experience just became more enjoyable and relaxed. And, being someone who was raised to be sensitive about food waste, I noticed specifically that trashcans were not overflowing when I left the cafeteria.

Eventually the grumbling about the lack of trays subsided, grumbling that I suspect comes with adjusting to pretty much any change from the normal routine. The freshmen, who hadn’t known a college dining experience with trays at all, didn’t have much to say on the topic because they had never known what having trays was like in the first place. Having made the trayless transition, I firmly believe that all schools should try it out, and not simply give up after a few weeks of student complaints. It’s really such a simple idea, one that encourages more mindful dining. I know it makes a difference because I’ve seen it first-hand. You don’t have to be an environmental activist to see the advantages of creating a more social dining experience, in which mealtimes are for enjoying food and company, and not just for mindless grazing before moving on with our busy lives.

Alvina welcomes your comments either below or via email: alvina.lopez [at] gmail [dot] com



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  1. [...] Lopez, a journalism student at Ashford College, touched on this yesterday in a blog posted to Wasted Food. You can read the full post there, but here’s my favorite [...]

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