Earlier this fall, Food Management facilitated a College/University Idea Exchange roundtable discussion among six campus dining directors who discussed the issues they faced and the solutions they developed to meet the challenge of feeding students in the fall term, given the restrictions imposed by the continuing coronavirus pandemic. Sponsored by Bush’s, the panel included dining directors from small and large, contract and self-op, and public and private colleges and universities from around the country.
The panel included:
- Kevin D'Onofrio, resident district manager for Sodexo at the University of Albany;
- Elizabeth Emery, director of dining services at Boston College;
- Jill Horst, executive director of campus dining at the University California, Santa Barbara;
- Adam Millman, senior director of dining at Yale University;
- Patrick Longton, campus executive chef at Union College; and
- Peter Testory, director of dining and culinary services at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The largely interactive discussion focused on a number of areas ranging from the policies being pursued at the time by the respective universities in terms of remote vs. in-person classes and residential capacity, to how to provide dining in an atmosphere where in-venue seating is severely limited and ways to keep students—especially first-year students who have formed no on-campus connections yet—engaged and made part of the campus community.
Here are key takeaways from each of the panelists:
University of Albany closed its residential, all-you-care-to-eat dining facilities early in the fall term and went all retail centered around its multi-concept Campus Center, where there is also some limited seating—about a quarter of the usual capacity. The program also put up some tents for extra seating while the weather was still warm and introduced mobile ordering with CBORD’s GET app, which was already generating close to 40% of all meal orders about a month into the semester.
Boston College has seen most of its student body return to campus, but the isolation of taking most classes online has worn on students, so the rare in-person interaction opportunities such as the Friday farmers’ markets that the school continues to hold have been especially popular.
UC-Santa Barbara was almost completely shut down in the fall with none of the usual 5,000 to 6,000 students residing in the dorms and the only on-campus residents being about a hundred graduate and “special circumstance” students. To try to introduce some interaction during what was an all-takeout approach, with masks hampering social connections between dining staff and customers, the program has been doing things like adding little treats and notes to takeout bags.
Yale opened up all fourteen of our dining halls at the start of the semester and converted them from all-you-care-to-eat to chefs plating up meals for the students, plus four of the six retail locations on campus. To de-densify kitchens, half of the facilities act as production facilities for the other seven with the food trucked over every morning where the plated meals are then finished off from the already-cooked ingredients.
To keep students engaged, Union College began conducting virtual cooking demos in the summer and then enhanced it by having two deans compete against each other in a pizza competition, which proved wildly popular. Also very popular have been street food pop-ups done outdoors while the weather was good, with social distancing and Plexiglass barriers for safety.
University of Wisconsin-Madison started the school year at 25% percent capacity inside-seating with a maximum of two diners per table, then hit a quarantine period for its two largest residence halls, so it went to all takeout. When the chancellor lifted that order, the dining rooms went back to the 25% capacity in-person dining approach but was still plating everything up in to-go containers instead of using any reusable china or flatware.