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Lunch tray

Courtesy of Neel Tandan/Medill

Eliminating lunch trays in universities can reduce food waste by more than 30 percent, according to recent study.

Tray bien? No merci

by Neel Tandan
Jan 30, 2013

Eliminating lunch trays in university cafeterias has been proven to reduce food waste by more than 30 percent and dish use by more than 25 percent, American University researchers are reporting.

Researchers from the American University in Washington D.C. conducted the study on tray use, which was published in the latest issue of the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition.

“They’re wasting less food [without trays],” said Kiho Kim, environmental scientist at the university and co-author of the study. “Instead of loading up their trays with four or five plates they have to make multiple trips. So they tend to load up less and take less.”

Kim’s research found removing trays from campus dining halls reduced food waste by about 26,455 pounds per semester. He also said there are other benefits.

“That’s only one half of it,” Kim said of the food-waste reduction, “The other half is that they’re using less dishes. There’s a tremendous amount of energy used to clean dishes and for clean water.”

Stevia Morawski, formerly one of Kim’s students and also co-author of the article, said by removing dining hall trays on some days and making them available on other days, researchers were able to quantify the difference in the amount of food waste generated.

“By taking the food off the trays we were able to find out the exact number,” said Morawski. “Due to those findings we recommended food services to remove trays, which they eventually did.”

Morawski, who now interns at the Archbold Biological Station in Florida as a field technician and research assistant, said she has seen more schools following suite.

“I noticed that quite a few schools had dropped their trays,” she said. “So I think it will slowly become the norm as more people see that studies have been done proving that it reduces food waste. There is really no reason not to.”

Spokeswomen for the University of Illinois at Chicago and Loyola University said their universities have trayless programs.

“If the students have a tray then they can pile more stuff on and they take more than they need,” said Amy Trujillo, resident district manager of dining services at Loyola University. “Also, it’s more of a community feel. There isn’t that cafeteria feel—like trough eating.” 

She said the university has had their trayless program implemented for five year and it has reduced food waste, as well as cut down on labor, water and energy.

The University of Chicago and Northeastern University do not currently have trayless programs. 

Richard Mason, the executive director for dining services at the University of Chicago said the university gives students the option to use trays, but discourages it.

“We do something called ‘tray inconvenient,’” Mason said. “We have a number of trays around where they are not convenient to use, not necessarily the most visible. If you need one you know where they are and if you don’t, you don’t, and someone can point them out to you.”

Mason said a study has shown that about 30 percent of students at the university opt to use trays.

Back at American University, Kim said he hopes to see other institutions carrying out their own studies to continue pushing for the reduction of food waste.

“How do we promote less food waste even in the absence of trays?” Kim asked.