As I walked into North Quad for the first time several weeks ago, I was impressed by its chic architecture, its state of the art technology and its international cuisine. There is no doubt North Quad is a great dormitory and an achievement in student housing. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that these achievements were overshadowed by one disappointment.

The trays that spilled through the dining hall, loaded up with more food than students could handle, contained an extraordinary amount of waste. The opportunity for the University to take a stand and show its contemporaries its leadership in sustainability was missed. A recent study showed that almost three quarters of the 300 universities in the nation with the largest endowments have implemented trayless dining. Sadly, the University isn’t one of them.

Of course, it’s not just the desire to make a statement that should promote trayless dining here at the University. Grand Valley State University, a school of 19,000 students, has reduced water consumption by 31,000 gallons per year, used 540 lbs less of detergent per year and saved $79,000 per year since it went trayless in 2007. The benefits of ditching trays are concrete.

There have been recent pilot programs introduced at University dining halls. In Mary Markley Residence Hall, trays were removed as part of a pilot program to reduce food waste. There is also a student initiative called “Tray Free Tuesdays.” On Tuesdays, students eat trayless at the Hill Dining Center and encourage others to eat trayless as well. Most recently, the pilot program at East Quad placed trays at less convenient locations throughout the dining hall, which produced a significant decrease in food waste.

What I then wondered was whether there is student support for trayless dining. Well, students polled at East Quad showed a 70-percent satisfaction rate with trayless dining. Ninety-two percent of students said it was important to reduce their environmental impact. The initiative clearly has student supoort.

If there is all this evidence to support trayless dining, why doesn’t the University implement it on a broader scale?

To be fair, according to the Integrated Assessment, the University has a decentralized approach to food on campus. There are 84 licensed food eateries that operate on campus and 200 different on-campus entities that each has their own approach to food production and waste management. What this essentially means is that change is difficult to implement at such a large university with such a decentralized approach to food.

To this claim, I would say that trayless dining is one of the simpler implementation efforts of sustainability on campus. This effort doesn’t include implementing a new composting system, or finding farms that are willing to implement large scale food operations, (although these large scale efforts have been proven possible as well). This is simply going trayless, which by all accounts will have a positive financial effect on the University as a whole.

Another claim is that implementing trayless dining would get rid of the positive effects of trays, most notably aid for students with disabilities and reduction of mess in the dining hall.

This claim, while valid, could be worked around by tweaking the trayless program itself. Trayless dining could be optional, and students who may need a tray could get one upon request. However, something like that hasn’t been tried at the University either.

East Quad is supposed to be the model for sustainability on campus, with sustainable local food and a more sustainable environment overall. But East Quad has trays in their dining hall today and its sustainable practices pale in comparison to other universities nationwide. At Yale University, one dining hall was made into a completely sustainable dining hall with a multitude of local food options and sustainable practices. This experiment was so successful that students are now pushing for all dining halls at Yale to be sustainable as well.

This proves that sustainable practices, if conducted in the right environment, can be successful. I believe that the lack of progress made with trayless dining at the University shows that there aren’t sufficient sustainability goals. Until the University’s goals are set higher, a simple sustainable practice such as trayless dining won’t be achieved, and that really is a shame.

Brian Rappaport is a Public Policy senior.

Bozewell, Angie, Jerry Ilar, Will Moyer, Avery Robinson, Caitlin Sadler and Stephanie
Wither. “Final Report: East Quad Trayless Dining Pilot.” University of Michigan
Environ 391 Final Report. (2010): Print.

Planet Blue, . “Campus Sustainability Integrated Assessment.” Food Analysis, Phase I. 01,
June 2010: Print.

Choices for Sustainable Living. Northwest Earth Institute: 2009

Cowan, Allison. “A Dining Hall Where Students Sneak In.” New York Times 10, May 2005,
Print.

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