Trayless: Is It Really A Sustainable Solution?

What was the first thing you noticed when you came back to campus this fall? Was it the brand-new Norton-Clark residence hall? The labrynthine new dorms under construction behind Frary? CMC’s giant crane?

You have to admit, Pomona has done a bang-up job coordinating all of the construction, renovations and changes over the summer. But among all the glittering additions to campus, there was one glaring absence. I am talking, of course, about the trays that were removed from every dining hall on the 5Cs.

For freshmen who may not know what I’m talking about, let me explain. At one point, your dining halls had trays, these glorious devices permitting you to carry more than two things at once. If you ate more than one plate of food and didn’t like waiting in line twice, a tray was your best friend. If you enjoyed more than one type of drink with your meal, you could put those drinks on a tray and carry them to your table without making several trips. Trays made life easier for a lot of people who enjoy eating healthy amounts of the excellent food our dining hall workers cook up every day.

But trays weren’t universally popular. At one point, Pomona’s Campus Climate Challenge started a weekly ritual called “Trayless Tuesday.” As the name suggests, our dining halls got rid of trays on Tuesday in order to promote awareness of the costs—both environmental and economic—of using trays. The underlying logic was that on “Trayless Tuesday,” people would take only what they could eat, thus wasting less food and avoiding the cost of washing trays.

This kind of thinking was all well and good until the school decided to apply it all the time. Then, the unintended consequences of trayless dining quickly emerged. Think about what happens without trays. Since everyone can only carry two things at once, people have to make multiple trips in and out of the food-serving area. It gets uncomfortably crowded in there pretty quickly. Not to mention, the table you’re eating at is filthy, because the people who ate there before you left behind crumbs, trash, and all kinds of other unsanitary messes that used to wind up on trays. That means the dining hall staff gets overworked because they’re walking around cleaning tables instead of washing trays by the dozen.

Most students understood this intuitively. That’s why they greeted “Trayless Tuesday” with ambivalence, or chose to eat their Tuesday meals at other dining halls that had trays. But now that all of the Claremont Colleges have gone trayless, everyone has seen what dining halls are like without trays seven days a week.

In light of this, I believe we should have a chance to reconsider the question at the heart of the trayless dining debate. Namely, should we place a significant burden on a large number of 5-C students and all of the dining hall workers just so that some people can feel good or brag about our school’s commitment to sustainability?

I submit that there are a number of better ways to promote sustainability than by forcing students to dine without trays. As an educational institution, Pomona should be working primarily to teach students about the true costs of food, so that we can make informed decisions. After all, choosing the food we eat everyday is a perfect example of how a liberal arts education ought to come in handy. Food is an issue at the heart of ethics, environmental science, politics, international relations, economics, religious studies, philosophy and history, just to name a few subjects. Perhaps we should adopt the spirit of the late Sagehen David Foster Wallace, who spent ten pages (plus footnotes) grappling with the ethics of eating in his classic essay, “Consider the Lobster.” Relentless introspection and enlightened dialogue should rule the day, but in the end there will be disagreements. Students have to be able to make their own choices about what kind of food to eat and how to eat it.

For the most part, the changes to the dining halls over the summer have preserved this ideal and given students the opportunity to choose. You can still get a to-go box if you want, it’s just reusable plastic instead of Styrofoam (whether or not it’s actually “greener,” who knows). You can still choose from all of the delicious food Frank and Frary have to offer, and you can even get extra-large cups at Frary now.

Trays are the only area where choice has been completely eliminated. We were never given the chance to judge for ourselves whether trayless dining is a worthwhile venture. Flashy posters sponsored by Sodexo (a company that has a vested interest in reducing the amount of food we eat at each meal) do not constitute an education. An unscientific “Trayless Tuesday” experiment does not provide a broad consensus to remove trays. It’s time to reopen the debate and allow students to vote with their trays at every meal.

Many people will point out that trays were removed to balance the food budget. Technically, they were, but bringing trays back now wouldn’t cost much of anything. We have plenty of trays right now in storage that could be brought out anytime. Washing those trays won’t require any more water because Pomona’s dishwashing system operates continually during meals. If our dining hall workers have to work less, that will save money in the long run too.

In the end, we shouldn’t bring trays back simply because it’s cheap to do so or because it will help our staff. We should bring trays back because it’s the right thing to do. That’s why I hope that, whether you eat 500 calories a day or 5000, you will join me in reconsidering the wisdom of going trayless.

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