Since April, when dining services provider Aramark had to furlough employees following the shutdown of in-person classes at James Madison University (JMU), the company has been offering a chicken dinner for four once a week to those associates. The program, which launched in April, will continue through the end of July, says Joey Farrell, food service director for Aramark at JMU.
At its peak, Aramark employs some 1,400 and all furloughed dining staff are eligible.
“We started off with 100 to 120 a week and we’re still doing 80 to 90 a week,” reports Farrell.
Classes are scheduled to begin at the end of August and typically, Aramark staff are brought in in staggered groups throughout the month to prepare. Of course, this year that expectation is tempered by developments in COVID infection levels.
Photo: The family meals include a whole chicken plus starch and vegetable sides.
Photo credit: JMU Dining/Aramark
The family meals always feature chicken prepared roasted, baked or rotisseried.
“We have a lot of different nationalities in our staff, so chicken seems to be our safest bet, with the sides being a rotation of potato, rice and pasta dishes and vegetable dishes. The meals are served every Tuesday.
The food is cooked in JMU’s main dining facility.
“We usually have two or three chefs come in the day before to prepare all the food and then they come back that morning and cook it all and get it ready,” Farrell explains. “Then a volunteer staff of 10 to 15 or more of our salaried folks on campus come in to package, hand out and orchestrate the drive-thru process.
The idea originated when the dining executive team “kicked around ideas on ways to help our staff out,” Farrell recalls. “It was something very important to us because of everything they do.”
When the university decided not to hold any more in-person classes last spring, leaving a lot of dining staff with nothing to do, the executive team decided to use product on hand to help them out
“We initially wanted to figure out a way to not only use the product we had in-house but also to provide a service for them and help them out during a trying time,” Farrell says.
The benefits were not just the tangible ones of providing a financial boost to the furloughed staff.
“What we also found through the process and one of the best things that came out of it is that we were able to keep that safe social interaction once a week with our folks,” he adds. “We really started to see a lot of positivity come out of it. They weren’t able to do the things they typical did, so it was good for them to see us and for us to see them to make sure everybody was doing OK.”
Feeding the furloughed employees wasn’t the only social service initiative the dining staff at JMU undertook in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. It also donated excess food to the community, including the student food pantry, when the university closed locations in March. It also made weekly donations to the Open Doors homeless advocacy and support group that is operating a homeless shelter on campus during the shutdown and donated hot meals every week for 60 homeless members of the local community that were staying in JMU’s Godwin Gym on campus in April and May.
It also sends a team every two weeks to volunteer for the Local Food Hub Fresh Farmacy program to pack up CSA boxes for the Fresh Farmacy: Fruit and Veggie Prescription Program, a partnership between Local Food Hub and six area health clinics that prescribe patients a bi-weekly supply of fresh fruits and vegetables grown by Local Food Hub partner farms.