The typical all-you-care-to-eat dining hall is a vast wasteland.
As customers are confronted with unlimited amounts of food, the natural temptation is to take more than one can eat and toss the excess when sated. Hence the mountains of food piled on trays, and hence the mountains of food dumped into the trash bins in the typical unlimited selection dining hall.
But now some colleges and prep schools with all-you-care-to-eat programs are turning to a different approach — eliminating the trays. That forces students to limit the amount of food they can get on any pass through the servery.
“By eliminating trays we are saving 30 to 50 percent of the 16 tons of waste we were generating each year previously,” says Stuart Lekie, general manager of dining operations at St. Joseph College in Standish, ME, for management company Bon Appetit. St. Joseph began its trayless program over three years ago on a limited basis. Starting last fall, trays have been removed completely.
Schools that have tried trayless systems report not just success in curtailing food waste but other benefits as well.
For example, Lekie says the move has also saved his program warewashing costs as “we no longer have to wash 1,000 trays each day.” That in turn creates a labor savings that can then be used in other areas.
Also, because students now have to return to the serving stations for seconds, they are less apt to keep eating after they are full. That helps keep the Freshman 15 in check, though it has also led to a drop in dessert consumption in some venues.
Still another benefit of going trayless is a perception upgrade, says Chris Kinney, general manager for Aramark at the University of Maine-Farmington, where the trayless program grew out of an Earth Day initiative in April 2006.
“Eating off trays is associated with cafeterias and institutional dining,” he says. “Eliminating them and making students eat directly off plates gives more of a restaurant feel.”
The reduced consumption and food waste has also led to savings in food procurement. At St. Paul School, a private residential academy for grades 9-12 in Concord, NH, Food Service Director Kurt Ellison says the dining hall was generating 2,100 pounds of waste a week from a residential student population of 524, plus faculty and staff.
Ellison introduced a voluntary trayless initiative in the all-you-care-to-eat dining hall two years ago, and made it mandatory last fall. The result: after 12 weeks he says he saved $16,000 in food purchases. Among the savings he cites are…
685 fewer gallons (11,000 glasses) of milk,
1,500 fewer gallons (21,000 glasses) of juice,
43 fewer cases (6,700 bowls) of cereal,
8,200 fewer eggs and
77,000(!) fewer glasses of assorted beverages (“Before, they would line up five or six on their trays and we'd throw about three of them out on a normal day,” Ellison says).
There were even 1,000 fewer broken water glasses, thanks to no longer having to balance them on trays.
Ellison says he did have to change the servery setup to accommodate his trayless program.
“You have to put silverware all over the place and we had to relocate our glass dispensers. As for warewashing, we had a band conveyor which we had modify to a slot conveyor.”
Ellison says he will save about 1,100 gallons of warewash water a day by not having trays to wash.
Another New England private residential school, Phillips Academy in Andover, MA, has been holding “Trayless Tuesdays” since March 2006, while leaving trays in place the rest of the time.
“We still need to build consensus,” says Michael Giampa, dining services manager. He says athletes and the faculty remain resistant.
Pushback from athletes, who love to load their trays high with food, is understandable. The faculty's hesitance comes from concerns about family dining, since they live on campus and take meals in their own dining hall with their families in the evening. “Dining with kids, the trays are a great convenience and people are reluctant to stop using them,” Giampa says.
At St. Joseph, the trayless initiative began as part of a hunger awareness campaign. Lekie, wishing to do his part, decided to test the effect of trays on waste by doing a waste study comparing a normal day with a “no tray Wednesday.”
“At the time, I wasn't doing it to get rid of the trays,” he says. “I was just using the trayless days to make the students more aware of how much they were wasting.”
The program at Maine-Farmington also grew out of a smaller initiative. Kinney says his department decided to go trayless for one day — Earth Day in April 2006 — as a sustainability measure during which the department did a plate waste analysis that was compared to the waste generated on a normal day.
Now, the benefits are obvious and considerable. Of course, there are also downsides.
“With no trays, the tables tend to get more crumbs on them now,” jokes Lekie.