"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

12 August 2009

Unintended Consequences

The catering service at my college decided last year to eliminate the use of trays. You can still get them if you are arthritic, say (or even just cantankerous), and if you know where the small stash is set aside or are willing to ask for one. But they are no longer available in the regular line and only a few of us use them.

The decision was based on research that shows much less food waste when customers don't have trays on which to stack multiple plates or multiple rolls, brownies, and so on. I applaud this; food is a valuable resource and I am glad our caterers desire to steward it well -- not to mention that it helps keep the cost down for the students. It's also a good thing, I believe, for students to see stewardship in action and learn to be more moderate in what they take.

Some negative consequences were, I'm sure, considered, such as the need to make multiple trips to get silverware and a drink. For some of us, this is a genuine difficulty because of health problems (or even time constraints between classes at times); but the trays are available if one is really needed. And for everyone else, it's one of those minor annoyances that it's not that difficult to become used to. New students may never even notice it.

But there has been a negative consequence that I'm sure was unintended. I won't claim that it outweighs the savings on food and food costs, but I do think it's worth noting: the lack of trays has made it more difficult for us to serve each other during a meal.

For example, a colleague returning to the line to get a cup of coffee and a dessert can no longer offer to get something for two or three or four others, because he can't carry the cups or plates. This was always a boon to conversation and often an important service to someone with a health problem. It's harder to let someone serve you if he has to make multiple trips to do so, after all, and so you do it yourself or say you don't want anything, even if you do.

And this is even more noticeable when people are finishing up a meal. With trays, one or two people who didn't have classes coming up, or one or two of the men when it was a mixed group, would gather all the plates and cups and glasses and silverware and return them to the kitchen for the rest of us. Over and over I was benefited by this service and was glad when I could offer it to someone else, and I was often surprised at who offered it -- not infrequently a student from the next table over would swoop in on us and take our dishes.

Of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with getting one's own after-dinner coffee or taking care of one's own dishes after finishing a meal. But the giving and receiving of service teaches us humility and reminds us of the bond we share with each other in this community; it helps to develop fellowship and Christian charity. I miss its easy availability.

Again, I am not opposed to our caterer's decision; I think it is a good one. But I think it is also a good example of how choices have consequences that are not always directly related to the reasons for making them. No one, after all, would deny that serving each other is a good thing; no one wanted to end or make more difficult our service to each other. Yet it has happened, and it has reminded me once again of the fact that in a fallen world, we cannot "solve" problems; we can only make trade-offs. Every choice we make that ameliorates some difficulty will have some unintended consequences that create or exacerbate other difficulties. If we see it in such a simple thing as whether or not to use trays in a cafeteria, how much more so in the political and social decisions that affect entire communities and nations?

God help us to take seriously the fact of unintended consequences, to consider carefully what they might be, and make our choices with wisdom and understanding, realizing the fallenness of this world.


GrumpyTeacher1 said...

That's a very thoughtful post. Little things, like trays, do make a difference. As you point out here, they may make an important difference, but we have to be aware enough to see.


alaiyo said...

Thanks, Scott. An idea that's been on my mind for a long time, but the trays/service issue seemed to focus it. Funny how little things often do that!

Hope all is going well with school prep. I am forcing myself to face the committee work I have to do for next week's faculty workshop . . . sigh.

Stephen said...

Two thoughts:

One, the unintended consequences of taking away the trays remind me of the typical "unintended consequences" lament of economists. For instance, people say, "Tax the rich!" without realizing that the rich promptly pass those increased costs on to the poor and middle class.

Two, the unintended consequences here are twofold. True, it makes it impossible to serve in the old way, by gathering things on the trays, but it provides great practice in dexterity for those daring enough to balance dishes and silverware using only their bare hands. :) The service is still there, it just takes a different form (and perhaps is reduced in quantity somewhat because the trays held more dishes).

alaiyo said...

Stephen, I agree completely with your first point, of course. With your second, well . . . . We used to have someone take 5 or 6 people's things after lunch -- I don't care how dextrous you are, that's not happening now! But of course folk can still serve each other, you're right. It just makes it harder. Again, not necessarily some terrible thing, but food for thought. Just how good are you at balancing, by the way? :)

Tiqvah said...

It is a pity that that happened.

alaiyo said...

Thanks for visiting, Tiqvah. I think the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, given the context (there's a lot of wasted food in any institutional setting, so minimizing that is important). But I think it's okay to feel a bit sorry for what is lost, too. Just curious - have we met? I couldn't tell from your profile if we might have --

Tiqvah said...

You are right, and thank you for the reminder to both accept the new good and but also grieve the old, without clinging to it.

I suspect we have met, if my deductions are correct, which I believe they are both from this post and the fact that I stumbled across your blog through a mutual friend, the Lutestring.

If they are correct, than you once gave me some very wise advice on accepting the fact that doing one's best is what matters.

I had been struggling with make-up work and a full course load, and felt badly that I had not done well in your British literature class.

If it is indeed you, thank you.

alaiyo said...

Bryan College; I think I know what you are referring to, though I can't quite get you from the back of the mind to the front! (Blame it on faculty workshops draining all my mental energy!) Email me at impsonbe @ bryan dot edu, okay?