Class project tests trayless Stav Hall, provoking backlash

Stav Hall went trayless for two nights last week in a pilot initiative spearheaded by students from an environmental studies course.

Five students from the course “Environmental Policy & Regulation in the United States” led the pilot initiative to gather information regarding student responses to a trayless cafeteria and to see if no trays is a good fit for St. Olaf.

The use of trays in the cafeteria leads to increased food waste and water usage, which contribute to poor campus sustainability, group members Cameron Goebel ’21 and Rose Sandell ’21 said.

No trays were present in Stav Hall during dinner Nov. 12 and 13, unless needed for accessibility reasons. Student volunteers weighed leftover food to gather data on food waste.

The students held the pilot as part of a class project that encouraged students to work toward a change in environmental policy.

“I want people to come out of this class and not think of policy as something that’s way off in Washington,” said visiting instructor in environmental studies Megan Butler, who leads the class.

The group landed on the idea of a trayless initiative after group member Becky White ’22 reached out to Bon Appetit General Manager Traci Quinnell and various other cafeteria workers. Northfield City Council Member Suzie Nakasian also spoke with group members about their project.

“She recommended that we do a pilot program, to see if we could try it first and then get some data, figure out public reactions, and then move forward from there,” Sandell said.

Goebel sent an email to the student body detailing the pilot program on Nov. 10 and a survey to gather feedback on Nov. 14.

The survey included four options regarding the trayless initiative – full support, on the fence, do not support, and don’t care. Of the responses so far, more students selected ‘do not support’ than ‘support,’ while ‘on the fence’ was the most popular option, Sandell said. The results so far are inconclusive.

“We saw a lot in the survey, people were asking, ‘I’d like to see if this actually makes a difference,’” Goebel said. “That may take them off the fence.”

During dinner on Nov. 19 and 20, the group weighed leftover food to measure the difference in food waste between having trays and not having trays.

“We’re hoping that there’s a significant difference,” Sandell said. “Maybe it’ll push people that are on the fence to be like, ‘oh, so this actually had an impact.’”

Sandell and Goebel noticed a majority of students expressed disapproval and frustration with a trayless cafeteria. This frustration led some students to attempt to skew measurements of food waste by placing bundles of napkins into the disposal bins to make them weigh more.

“We knew public reaction was going to be bad,” Sandell said. “We just didn’t know to what extent.”

Butler indicated that other groups working on projects for class have not faced the kind of push-back the trayless pilot has so far received.

“I think those dissenting opinions are important to understand, and to decide if this policy change is necessary,” Butler said. “I think they’re doing a good job collecting that data, too.”

The group also used the pilot to gauge whether a trayless cafeteria would be a good fit for St. Olaf in the future.

“I don’t think mandatory no-trays is a good fit,” Goebel said. “But I do think there’s a huge aspect where if people knew there was more of an impact, they would change their autopilot behavior of grabbing a tray.”

Although Bon Appetit cafeteria workers expressed support for eliminating trays, preliminary student responses indicated that an entire elimination of trays would not be possible at the moment. A culture change has to happen before trays can be eliminated, Goebel and Sandell said.

“I think at this point it’s just about bringing awareness to people,” Sandell said. “Now we’re kind of just hoping for a culture shift, and this just might be the start of it. It might be people recognizing the problem now.”