What Happens When College Cafeterias Go Trayless?


The answer is:

People buy less food and subsequently eat less and throw away less. For the customer, it’s good for the budget and the waistline; for the cafeteria (and the environment), it substantially cuts down on waste. Sounds like a win-win situation, unless you are the party who profits most from selling a high volume of food. Here, from an article in Restaurants and Institutions, are some details:

Foodservice managers find that when trays are eliminated from all-you-can-eat dining halls, diners take less food and therefore waste less. In a study released this summer, Philadelphia-based Aramark Higher Education reported that schools saw a 25 percent to 30 percent drop in food waste per person when trays were removed.

In addition, the move cuts back on overhead, because there are no purchase or ongoing replacement costs for trays, says Tom Post, president of campus dining for Gaithersburg, Md.-based Sodexo, which manages foodservice programs on more than 600 campuses. Many Sodexo campus accounts already have retired their trays.

Hat tip goes to Josh Friedland, who blogged about this at The Food Section. For further reading, see earlier posts on the Dutch university cafeteria that’s set up as a behavioral lab and the notion of whether a rise in plumbing facilities encourages a rise in food consumption.

I also wonder if trayless cafeterias might see a spike in shoplifting. It might begin accidentally. Since roughly 83 percent* of college undergrads wear sweat pants to breakfast, I can see them using a big, baggy pocket to hold the orange juice or breakfast burrito that they can’t comfortably carry, only to discover they’ve gone past the checkout without paying for it, thus realizing how easy it would be to do it again and again. This would of course be hard to do with scrambled eggs or a salad.

*Made-up statistic.

Paul Franceus

You forget that college cafterias are typically all you can eat and therefore you don't have to pay for what you get. I'm guessing that making students actually pay for their meals would lead to even less waste.


Can't we just make the trays smaller?


83% seems low.


I think the most notable savings would be to those college cafaterias that offer all you can eat services. I know when i was in college i loaded up my tray with as much as possible, just so that I didnt have to walk back to the end of the line to get more food. kids lazyness add to the problem and who knows, maybe waist sizes will drop in the US if kids have to keep getting out of their chair to go get more food.
I think its a great idea. Save more, spend less, and get some fat kids walking to get their next meal in the hopes of burning a calorie or two.


Apparently Paul Franceus hasn't been on many college tours... At the campuses I've been to in recent years, all you can eat is the is the exception, not the rule these days.


As someone who goes to a college that just eliminated trays, it really isn't a win-win situation. It might make people eat less food and waste less, but it substantially increases the hassle when you have to carry a plate or two plus a drink and silverware. All that isn't easy to carry without a tray.


I imagine the vast majority of cases where food service providers go trayless are in buffet-style cafeterias, not pay-per-item snack bars. Honest people tend not to take more than they will eat when they are actually paying for each item, which for most people works out to be less food than they are able to carry. No need to stuff a breakfast burrito in a cargo pocket. I suspect the theft rate from a la carte campus eateries would be the same with or without trays.

Goose The Tax Dog

Several all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ buffets that I have visited have an ingenious method of cutting down on waste: a tax on uneaten food. There are prominent signs claiming that uneaten food will incur a penalty of $X per pound. I've never seen this penalty actually applied, but I do find myself only taking what I can eat.


"This would of course be hard to do with scrambled eggs or a salad."

From experience (not shoplifting, but carrying it to class after purchasing it)... not as hard as you might think.


I certainly hope that they don't get rid of the trays at Willard Straight Hall. How would freshman slide down the hill?


At the University of Maryland we had an a la carte system, so I don't imagine eliminating trays would help as much, since the main deterrent on over-consumption was the limited number of dining hall "points" (expressed in dollar amounts) you had available each semester.

One significant factor, however, was that freshmen and sophomores (the main dining services customers) would frequently steal the trays for use as makeshift sleds when it snowed. They weren't very useful as sleds, but it was the best we could usually do.


Man I hated Aramark. They would require us to buy 14 meals a week at $7-9 each. They would then get all that money upfront. How much could it cost to make that junk pizza and coke? I imagine they were turning at least $3 in profit a meal. The real kicker was meals don't roll over so they just pocketed what people didn't eat which was often 100-150 meals a year. This gave them horrible incentive to keep the food quality and variety up. After a few weeks they would be on a rotation of a few things and you would be forced to forgo your prepaid meals to eat anything different. We were able to get them back a little bit senior year. We had two accounts; a meal account and a al la carte account of cash. The cash was refunded upon graduation. We maxed out our miles credit cards the week before graduation and then immediately paid off the balance when we got the check from Aramark. We ended up 10-15k miles and it probably cost Aramark around $300 to $400. I don't think I would have done it if Aramark hadn't treated us the same as the prisoners they serve.



I worked at Santa Rosa Hewlett Packard, where my friend and I saw a technician or assembler look like she was going to pay for the bagel in the cafeteria line, but then slipped it into her pocket and walked out so fast I couldn't think to shout. She would also dive into the newspaper dispenser as someone was taking a paid-for paper, and quickly snatch out another paper.

HP was too politically correct to require people to speak English, or to assume anyone was stealing.

My friend and I nicknamed her 'the bagel-snatcher".


Sodexho runs the food at my campus. Every Thursday, they take away our lunch trays. This obviously isn't very popular with the students who (as #6 mentioned) are left with the burden of transporting plates, silverware, etc. while carrying books and bags as well.

The response? As students, we offer Sodexho a choice. If they provide us with trays, we're happy. If they reduce trays to prevent waste, every single student leaves their dishes. Sodexho workers then end up bussing tables. It'll be interesting to see who caves first.


Without cafeteria trays, what are you supposed to steal and use as sleds the first time it snows? Desktops? Whiteboards?


WSU Pullman went a la carte. Pay for each dish you buy. Since I eat less than a college boy, this is the best system: don't punish light eaters via the health-insurance-premium type of scam.

Their few vegetarian dishes were drowning in cheese, which the college students liked best. The server who smirked at me for ordering rice had a face that looked like a land mine.

So the a la carte may have been the only really good thing about them.


Another loser in this scenario is the manufacturer of those plastic cafeteria trays.


the girls won't be stealing...we don't do baggy sweatpants with big pockets. we do yoga pants. how else are we expected to look sexy but fit in with the dress code at brunch?

Steven Horwitz

We went trayless in both our all-you-can-eat venue and our a la carte one. In the latter, it sucks. It's also not clear it's a winner for the environment. Here's why:

I can no longer carry a cup of soup and a cup of iced tea without using lids. With a tray, I could do so. But now I have to have lids, which in turn means two more pieces of plastic thrown away. Add to that the higher number of napkins needed to guard against the higher risk of spillage trying to balance all that trayless food, and you have more waste. If you'd like to add the resource costs of cleaning up all the spills, you can do that too.

You can also add to it that the a la carte venue was opened 5 years ago with the idea that food could be purchased but then transported to comfortable seating locations all across a three story building. So much for that idea now. Try getting up stairs or into an elevator without a tray.

Call this another bad nudge/green idea.



the real question is where the profits are being moved in this situation. either the supplier, the provider, or the consumer is getting a deal. i can see the supplier being punished (less consumption). the provider is able to maximize profit (increase efficiency). the consumer either is hurt or benefits (some people will no longer be supplementing the wasteful, and the wasteful will no longer be able to free ride).