Truth on Our Trays

Students must understand the real cost of wasted food

As my house’s representative for the Harvard College Resource Efficiency Program (REP), you’d expect me to love the recently introduced plan to pilot a trayless-dining night at Quincy House, and I do. But I also have a strong sense of concern regarding the project’s outcome: because it has so much merit, and some potential pitfalls, it really has to be done right, to be understood by students not as a month-long inconvenience, but a practical, tangible step in the service of sustainable living.

As I see it, the pilot, dubbed “Trayless Thursdays at Quincy” by Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS), will be an excellent chance for HUDS to show that two of its objectives—making students feel like they are at home and feeding 6400 hungry mouths daily in the most economical and environmentally friendly way—are not fundamentally at odds. The experiment, if paired with sufficient information, will also give students some insight into just how huge an environmental impact the food on their plates has.

Food will be at the crux of the global sustainability challenge that our generation will be forced to confront in the coming years. The production of any single item of food has political and environmental costs that often dwarf its list price. For example, the greenhouse emissions from livestock production exceed those of transportation worldwide, according to a recent New York Times article by Mark Bittman .

And all these global concerns converge on our humble dining hall trays, where the food is “free” and the waste is sadly plentiful. HUDS should be commended for its egalitarian effort to keep economic disparities out of our dining halls so that rich and poor can eat together as a community. But at the same time, the all-you-can-eat meal plan contributes to a culture cavalier about its leftovers. We are insulated against the realization that throwing a slab of meat or an uneaten salad onto the conveyor belt is qualitatively no different from idling your car instead of parking it, or running an air conditioner and heater at the same time.

In reality we consume food—particularly red meat—at bargain prices, if you consider the negative externalities involved in its journey from pasture to plate. Imagine that quarter-pound of brisket you ate last night: a widely quoted recent study in the Animal Science Journal shows that the carbon footprint of that beef is 4.11 kilograms, the amount released in about ten miles of driving in an average American car. What if you and thousands of others at Harvard took just a tenth of a pound more brisket than you managed to eat—you might as well have driven to California. Even scraps can add up quickly.

Until now, HUDS has had no way of communicating the high, hidden costs of uneaten meals, other than with gentle, nagging reminders, which were never enough to limit waste. One needn’t spend even a minute in an Ec 10 lecture to know why: there is simply no cost to you for taking far more than you can eat, nibbling at some of it, and then taking it—in a heap—to the tray return.

Ultimately, HUDS is not home, but if it can help us understand where our food comes from and what its impact is, as well as when enough is enough, it will have done its job.

So while students may feel inconvenienced by trayless dining at first, I hope they will open their minds and consider the benefits associated with that inconvenience. After all, if they had trays at home, they’d probably have to wash them themselves.

Jonathan B. Steinman ’10, a Crimson sports editor, is the Winthrop House Representative for the Resource Efficiency Program and a Chemistry concentrator.