Behind the Sneeze Guards: Testing Take-Out Boxes

By Jonathan O. Hirsch


Take-out boxes have been wreaking havoc on dining hall budgets in recent years. The cost of compostable boxes, introduced for the fall 2008 semester, was between three and four times that of the Styrofoam boxes they replaced. The introduction of compostable boxes also corresponded with an increase in take-out box use. Pam Franco, General Manager of Collins at Claremont McKenna, estimates that the dining hall distributed over 80,000 take-out kits last year at a net loss of just over 50 cents each.

In addition to the cost of the take-out boxes themselves, administrators were concerned about the environmental and labor impact of distributing so many take-out boxes. Collins keeps three to five days worth of take-out boxes in stock at a time; there are frequent deliveries, each of which has both a delivery charge and labor costs. There is also a cost to removing each box from campus. Seeing the sheer volume of take-out boxes in campus trashcans prompted CMC Vice President and Dean of Students Jefferson Huang to “think a little bit about the building attendants who are hauling out 80,000 containers of food that’s just nasty.”

Finally, there was the problem of take-out box abuse. Debra Wood, Vice President and Dean of Students at Scripps College, said that students on the eight meal plan, students at Claremont Graduate University, and staff from all five colleges would abuse the all-you-can-eat system. Abusers, who indirectly raised costs for all diners, would come through Scripps’s Mallot Commons, eat a meal in the dining hall, and then load up their take-out boxes with food for later meals. With each of these factors pressuring costs, a change was needed.

Scripps started looking into purchasing reusable take-out boxes over a year ago but found no products on the market that satisfied their requirements. Without any viable reusable options, the deans and treasurers of the 5Cs met and agreed to start charging 50 cents per take-out kit, effective this fall. The 50-cent rate was below cost, but CMC Treasurer Robin Aspinall still targeted approximately $65,000 in savings from the new policy. Franco says that in addition to the added revenue, take-out use is down over 50 percent since the surcharge was added.

The deans and treasurers also agreed that Pitzer would take the lead in researching and gradually implementing a reusable take-out program as suitable products became available. The implementation was supposed to be similar to the staggered conversion to trayless dining. Nonetheless, as Wood noted, “whenever human beings are involved, there are miscommunications.”

While Huang said that he “heard nothing through the whole summer until the very end,” there were a range of back and forth discussions at the other colleges. During the summer, Sodexo, the food service provider at Scripps, Pomona, and Harvey Mudd Colleges, presented each of the schools with a box intended to meet the needs of the colleges’ respective dining halls.

Wood and Sodexo tested the proposed box, soaking it in various acidic foods and putting it through the dishwasher many times. Wood devised a durability test herself, in which she “stood on it and bounced up and down.” Based on Sodexo’s testing as well as her own, Wood determined that the proposed box was suitable for use at Scripps.

Meanwhile, the then Food Service Director at Harvey Mudd thought he was authorized to purchase and distribute free take-out boxes to HMC students and was preparing to purchase the Sodexo-recommended box. Wood also believed that Pitzer had decided to use the Sodexo-recommended box based on conversations between representatives of Pitzer and the food service director at Scripps. With this information, Wood emailed the deans at the other colleges to inform them of Scripps, HMC, and Pitzer’s desire to use the Sodexo box with the hope that it could become standard across the 5Cs. Things appeared to be on the right track, but within 48 hours, Wood said, “it all blew up.”

An HMC dean emailed Wood saying that HMC’s food service director had been mistaken and that HMC would not be using reusable take-out boxes. Pomona indicated that they might purchase the Sodexo box but ultimately decided against it. Pitzer confirmed that they were in fact planning to implement a reusable box this fall and communicated to the food service director at Scripps that it would be the Sodexo box. Wood explained, “We thought we were picking the same box as Pitzer, only to learn after each of us had invested in thousands of them, that they were close but no cigar.”

The Port Side requested comment on Pitzer’s take-out decisions; however, Pitzer’s chef did not respond to written questions and Pitzer’s treasurer declined to make himself available.

Meanwhile, Pomona decided to purchase a reusable box that was similar in design to the compostable boxes they had been using. Pomona Vice President and Dean of Students Miriam Feldblum explained the decision to use smaller containers. “This size can reduce the amount of food wastage,” she said, and both staff and students “thought that the larger containers could lead to increased food wastage.” Price was also a factor. The reusable boxes used at Pitzer and Scripps cost about $6 each, while the smaller boxes Pomona chose each cost about $3, thereby saving students money if they need replacement boxes.

While other schools were purchasing different take-out boxes, Huang was taking the wait-and-see approach at CMC. He had concerns about the durability of the reusable boxes and did not want to make such a large investment until he could see the program in action at other colleges. After seeing the success of the program at Pitzer and hearing from CMC students who wanted a similar program, Bon Appétit approached CMC about using reusable take-out boxes at Collins. Bon Appétit considers itself to be a “socially responsible” catering service; as part of its commitment to sustainability, Bon Appétit agreed to cover the cost of a take-out box for each CMC student on the meal plan. At the other 5Cs, it was the school that footed the bill.

After examining the Sodexo and Pitzer boxes, CMC and Bon Appetit opted to buy the model currently in use at Pitzer. The Bon Appetit boxes can be used at both Collins and McConnell.

While the 5Cs now have four different take-out policies, there is hope that one day students will be able to get take-out from each dining hall regardless of their home college. Wood says that goal “would be wonderful… our students do enough cross-dining that they need the flexibility.” Huang expressed the same sentiment: “I think it is in everyone’s interest in the long run if we work towards something together…but we are not ready for that yet.”

According to Wood, “the biggest problem [with integration] would be with Pomona,” whose boxes are significantly cheaper than those at other schools. She added that “some schools may be more concerned about how much food can fit in a take-out container and the amount of abuse that may exist” than the benefits of having a single 5C system. Wood pointed out that the Sodexo box is about twice as expensive as the box at Pomona and slightly more expensive than the box being used by Bon Appétit. Because of this, she worries that if take-out systems were to be integrated without the use of a common container, some colleges would end up paying a disproportionate share of take-out costs. Huang says that he has spoken with his counterparts about using the Bon Appétit boxes at other dining halls, but has not yet been able to reach an agreement.All parties agree that no technical issues prevent integration of the programs; each box can withstand trips through each campus dishwasher without incident. As soon as the deans come together, communicate, and forge an agreement, students will be able to return to the days of free and convenient take-out throughout the Claremont Colleges.

Published with support from Generation Progress.

Copyright © 2015 Claremont Port Side.