Should we abolish trays?

Behavioral economics in action, or call it voluntary paternalism:

Students ran a test last semester showing that on two days when trays
weren’t offered, food and beverage waste dropped between 30 and 50
percent, according to Kathy Woughter, vice president for student
affairs at Alfred. That amounts to about 1,000 pounds of solid waste
and 112 gallons of liquid waste saved on a weekly basis, according to
the college.

And why?:

Think back to your undergraduate days eating in the dorm dining hall.
When you moved through the buffet line, did you ever get a little too
ambitious with portions just because you had extra room on that plastic

If I ran a cafeteria I would consider abolishing utensils, thereby encouraging South Indian and Ethiopian food, but I don’t expect that would be popular with all patrons.


In addition to the waste, the free food in a dorm style hall contribute to many a "freshman 15" or, in my case, 30...

Ah, and we now know why Tyler did not go into (or perhaps was run out of) the cafeteria business. I wonder if people would be allowed to bring their own utensils into the Cowen Cafeteria?

My first thought on the post was just that its a pain in the ass to carry very much food back to your seat without a tray. Given that lines are sometimes long, students might not want to bother getting back up to get another helping. I don't think there is anything esoteric about it: Raise the cost of bringing larger amounts of food back to one's seat, and people will bring less food back to their seat.


I don't understand why South Indian food won't need utensils (Rasam, Sambar, Coconut chutney??) and there are South Indian buffets too ( Lunch at Udipi in Sunnyvale CA)

- Pankaj

And, the food isn't exactly free.

The first slice of pizza is $6, the subsequent eleven slices are free.

"If I ran a cafeteria I would consider abolishing utensils, thereby encouraging South Indian and Ethiopian food,"

Or hot dogs and burritos (sandwiches, hamburgers)...

But as to trays, it makes sense to me. With the room people tend to add desert, side dishes, etc just because the empty space i kind of calling out to be filled.

The buffets in Las Vegas don't have trays. I think the casinos probably know more about waste (because of its effect on profitability) than most universities...

Eh. My favorite local buffet doesn't offer trays and I still manage to stuff myself silly whenever I go.

However, I suspect that they will find that students (a typically lazy lot) will try to cram everything onto one plate. This will a) increase spills, and b) cause the consumption of vegetables and salad to drop.

A little off-topic, but I've always wondered why fast food restaurants don't just serve every meal in a bag, rather than trays for dine-in and bags for carry out. It would seem to save time, rather than asking "For here or to go" every time.

By the way, bronxilla, if your kids' cafeteria is like mine, the size of the tray is irrelevant. They are served a meal of pre-determined size. They just don't eat it all.

I know of quite a few colleges and universities where at least in the past
cafeteria trays were used as sleds on snow-covered hills during wintertimes.
This positive externality should be kept in mind in the calculation.

Of course, with global warming the value of this externality may be decreasing,
and maybe those darned spoiled students should just go and buy their own sleds!
Oh, and I just remembered, of course, global warming is just a myth of the
liberal fascists (or is that "fascist liberals"?)....

Jarick, the alternatives to putting the drink on the tray are to balance the tray with one hand and the drink in the other (increasing the likelihood you'll drop both), or making two trips (which eliminates the need for a tray in the first place).

The monopolistic nature of many university food providers does not need to be supplemented with limitations to students' abilities to get more food.

I think lowering initial prices and increasing marginal prices is a much better and fairer mechanism.

When I worked at Wendy's during the 70's, I was instructed to only refill the condiment stand 50% full as it resulted is less waste in packaging as well as supplies. I always found that interesting, but true. Apparently Dave Thomas was in touch with his inner economist.

I wasted food in my college's dining hall all the time. Because it was difficult to tell if something was going to be bad, very bad, or disgusting, I had to get several items just to hedge my choices.

The food was magically much better at the meals where food was purchased using points stored on our student ID cards.

Abolish trays...maybe...or charge for each item of food as is the new trend in many college dining halls. This causes an implicit cost/benefit analysis for each item of food. Granted, if students are not paying their own room and board bills, this idea may not work perfectly and moral hazard will still be present.

...or maybe we're just hungry...

On a related note, one of my favorite books is "The Case of the Unreturned Cafeteria Trays," by Lloyd Etheredge. It takes the problem of why students don't bus their trays and looks at alternative economic, sociological, psychological and political explanations. It also shows how policy prescriptions based on one model would be counterproductive if a different explanatory model were the correct one.

It's a great introduction to the relationship between theory and policy in the social sciences. Available at

I'm with Matt -- I don't see why this is "behavioral economics." Straightforward neoclassical maximization is sufficient. Trays lower the cost of grabbing additional unpriced items that you might want to eat.

More on college cafeteria economics here.

Not only schools. Religious institutions can also get into the act. Mosques, churches, temples and so on can perhaps be a bit more socially tuned-in. I can only speak for certain churches, but it seems to me many are so insular. It's all about one's faith, one's church, one's religious obligations and - for some churches - contribution of money-money-money. The Roman Catholics are better in this respect. In addition to the religious aspect, there is a social element in their faith of serving the larger community.

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