The Trayvolution: Reducing Food Waste at Davidson

Adde Sharp ’20

This past Monday, a campus revolution was born—the trayvolution. A product of a Hub@Davidson based initiative to reform campus food waste and redistribute food equitability on campus, the trayvolution, or a voluntary week of trayless dining, is an attempt to reduce food waste at Vail Commons. However, the campus movement aims to not just impact Commons food waste data, but to more broadly bring a level of awareness to food waste.

Between 40-50% of the food that is produced in America goes to waste. The answer to feeding “a growing population” is not necessarily producing more food, but reclaiming and redistributing the food we do produce [1]. Issues of food waste and food insecurity are easy to overlook at Davidson, especially given the mandatory meal plan. Yet, roughly 40% [2] of college students (and a surprising number of Davidson students) identify as food-insecure, or not having consistent access to adequate food. While composting is a great start to diverting food waste from landfills, preventing food waste and minimizing money spent on wasted food is a more effective first step.

Studies across the across the country show that the use of trays in dining facilities, especially in those that are buffet-style, encourage consumers to take more food than they need, filling up the tray. When trays are removed and consumers must make individual trips back for more food, they only take what they can eat and are less likely to make additional trips back for more food. Universities, colleges, and institutional dining facilities nationally have dramatically reduced food waste by removing trays from their dining facilities. The University of Massachusetts report savings of 25%, equivalent to $70,000, simply from removing trays and preventing food waste. Peer institutions such as Williams now save 14,000 gallons of water from not washing 147,000 trays a year. Furthermore, studies show going trayless as resulting in a 27% reduction of dishes used (and then washed), and approximately 17% of energy saved (through not over-preparing food and not heating excessive dishwater) [3].

Beyond the increased environmental sustainability, a trayless system means less money spent on food that is never actually consumed. In Davidson’s case, such money could theoretically go towards further subsidizing the meal plan and making food across campus more accessible to all students.

Thus, with these examples in mind, we started the trayvolution, a student movement to transform the way we think about food and consume food–aiming to be more environmentally and socially sustainable. But the trayvolution is also an experiment, a trial-run, to see how trayless dining will impact Davidson–assessing how much food and money can be saved. The data from food waste (in pounds) at the end of the week will be compared to other weeks of food waste at Commons, and will hopefully be a preview to the potential benefits of going trayless at Davidson.

But revolutions are not without conflict and change can’t occur without disruption.

In addition to mindsets of “it’s always been done this way,” that the trayvolution immediately encountered, Commons does not have the infrastructure to support 100% trayless dining. Specifically, the dishwashing station and conveyor belt in Vail Commons necessitate use of trays. So, the trayvolution is quasi-trayless–simply eliminating trays that are used to collect food. Other logistical challenges include the overstacking of trays (in an effort to consolidate dishes onto fewer trays), which overwhelms the staff in the back, as well as dishes placed directly on the conveyor belt, not on a tray at all. Despite some confusion, the trayvolution is not a movement about fewer trays, but rather reducing food waste through dining “trayless.”

Naturally, people are reluctant to change a functioning, reliable, and familiar system regardless of potential long-term benefits. For Commons, there is little incentive to cut down on post-consumer waste (the waste on people’s plates), because it’s already been “paid” for through meal plans. Removing trays, an incredibly unpopular idea at Commons, simply disrupts the status quo. The trayvolution, therefore, must be a grassroots student effort requiring overt student action and initiative.

Although the Trayvolution is formally March 19th through March 23rd, students and faculty are encouraged to continue dining trayless as a personal statement of commitment to wasting less food, energy, and water, and promoting food equity and economic sustainability at Davidson and beyond.

Please stay tuned for results, data, and a vision for future food systems at Davidson.



[1] Claire Burgett et. al, “Exploring the Economic, Environmental and Social Implications of Trayless Dining at Colgate University,” Colgate University, 2011; Julian Parfitt et. al “Food waste within food supply chains: quantification and potential for change to 2050,” Royal Publishing Society, 2016.

[2] Micevski, D. A., “Food insecurity of tertiary students. Nutrition & Dietetics,” 71: 258-264; 2014.

[3] From a case study of UMass Amherst conducted by Leanpath Food Waste Tracking System.


Adde Sharp ’20 is an Environmental Studies major from Breckenridge, Colorado. Contact her at

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