As Columbia University sophomore Sanaz Fazeli slowly walked to a table at John Jay Dining Hall, carefully balancing a precarious arrangement of plates, utensils and cups with both arms, she announced: "I could really use a tray right now."
This balancing act in college cafeterias is becoming a daily routine for thousands of students across the country as more and more schools make the decision to go "trayless," eliminating a dining hall staple to reduce food waste and water use.
Aramark and Sodexo, the nation's two largest university cafeteria suppliers, have taken steps to reduce waste and are suggesting to all the universities they serve that cafeteria trays be eliminated. Studies conducted by both companies show that eliminating trays reduces the amount of food wasted per meal and also dramatically conserves water needed to wash the trays.
Food waste is of particular interest to university administrators because the cost has skyrocketed in recent years. The idea of going without trays as a way to reduce food waste is that students who carry trays while they browse the food selection in the cafeteria are likely to pile copious amounts onto their trays, not really thinking about what they will actually eat. Without trays, students have to select more carefully, given the comparatively small size of a regular plate, and thus are more likely to eat all the food that they have selected.
Sodexo company officials, who estimate that removing trays saves about 200 gallons of water a day for every 1,000 meals served, expect that approximately 230 of its 600 university partners will eliminate trays.
In a study at the University of Maine at Farmington, Aramark found that trayless dining reduced food waste by 25 to 30 percent. Additionally, 288,288 gallons of water were conserved and an estimated $57,000 worth of resources (normally allocated to "energy, water, cleaning agents and waste removal") was saved.
That study, along with research at another 24 colleges, led Aramark to encourage trayless dining at all of the college campuses that it works with -- and it expects that 50 to 60 percent of its 500 campuses will make the change.
One such school, Lake Forest College in Illinois, made the change at the beginning of this academic year and hasn't looked back since.
"People, when they have trays tend to take more than they actually will eat," said Robin Bertucci, office manager for Lake Forest Dining Services.
Lake Forest piloted the trayless program during Earth Week last spring. When students were receptive to the idea, administrators at Lake Forest decided to make it a permanent fixture.
"This was a food cost issue as well as an environmental issue," said Bertucci.
On the environmental level, Aramark reported in August, "Trayless dining reduces our client's environmental footprint. It reduces waste, conserves natural resources (namely energy and water) and reduced the amount of detergents, rinse, and drying agents into the water table."
In addition to the financial benefits achieved by universities and suppliers, Margot Carroll, interim associate vice president of the University of Delaware's administrative services, said that students will also reap benefits from this change.