World's Fair

The Trayless Lunch

“As America’s colleges and universities search for ways to go green, many are looking at the dining hall….where five times more energy and water are consumed than any place else on campus.” (WVTF)


Small things matter.

Here at U.Va. and apparently at several hundred other colleges, Aramark–a primary food distribution company for large organizations like schools and hospitals and corporations–is going without trays. (Listen here. See here.) Large-scale food distribution provides both the benefits of efficiencies of scale and the drawbacks of efficiencies of scale. They can get a lot of food out there, and do it with cost-reducing mechanisms. But they propagate waste, encourage mass consumption, and require patterns of agricultural growth that are based on mechanical values instead of sustainable (and organic) ones.

So, the tray. One place to start. Reduces water use (to clean the trays), electricity (to handle and clean the trays), and waste (by encouraging smaller portions).

UPDATE: So, given Mark and Kevin’s comments, I realized a lesson of blogging, which is, do a better job. I casually picked a nice-looking picture of a lunch tray from Google, slapped it up with the story, ran off to teach class (about “improvement,” no less — see below), and didn’t consider the implications of all that disposable crap on the lunch tray when paired with the actual linked story. This was misleading. The point of the trayless lunch is that these Aramark services don’t ladle out food onto trays. They always serve it on other plates and bowls which go on the trays. (The picture above is random–it doesn’t have anything to do with a UVA cafeteria.) One thing that’s better is if they use recyclable plates and fewer of them. Thus, for lunch seekers without a tray, what you’re doing is holding a drink in one hand and a plate in another. This removes the tray handling, washing, and drying aspects, which is where the water and energy savings come from. The plate issue is ostensibly the same with or without trays, but the excess energy from the trays is removed. At the same time, not having a tray does discourage overstacking and piling on and thus subtly encourages less consumption. So it’s supposed to be an improvement. You can imagine that Aramark does it for self-interest, because it saves money, but it also offers advantages for the host institution. Whichever, I think Mark’s more significant point is the challenge to this idea that all of the above is “better” or an improvement — really all it does is return us to where we were in the past before we starting using all that disposable crap and piling on more and more food. In this case improvement means we might get back to where we used to be.


  1. #1 Markus
    September 11, 2008

    So how are you supposed to carry the milk, salad, bread, and the main entree all at once? This smells like bias against the food pyramid.

  2. #2 Kevin W. Parker
    September 11, 2008

    Other than the food, there’s only one reusable thing in that picture, and that’s what they’re getting rid of? What about alternatives to all that throwaway plastic?

  3. #3 Markus
    September 11, 2008

    What Kevin said. When I went to school in a “socialist” paradise, we didn’t use anything that was disposable. Except maybe the little margarine packets. The food, including milk and wholegrain bread, was delivered in bulk. The entree you got better fit on your plate. A small plate for dessert. Bread you could stack on the tray.

    What sustainability are the disposable boxes providing?

  4. #4 Till
    September 12, 2008

    Some years ago our university cafeteria switched from “tray only” (one tablet with partitions for different kinds of food) to “tray + china” (tray as pictured above, china not really china, but some ceramics that go through the dishwasher). I’m not sure, but I think that the eco bilance under the line is more or less the same for both, a bit better for the (uglier) “tray only”. But I’m quite sure that the eco bilance is much better for either one of these alternatives than for one-use only materials.