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Kiwi1_copy.jpg Sodexo/Kiwibot
Food delivery robots at the University of Denver last fall, part of a growing trend toward automation on college campuses that can be expected to expand even more in the coming school year and beyond.

Back to School: College dining looks to revive campus culture

As universities ready for a return of students to campuses, the dining programs deal with the changes brought on by the past year’s pandemic experience that will continue to influence student meal service preferences.

As vaccination rates increase and life begins returning to some semblance of ‘normal’ this summer, the eyes of education institutions turn to what fall and the new academic year might bring after nearly a year and a half of pandemic-adjusted operations that generally hit program budgets hard. For college dining programs, the new academic year brings the challenge of reviving its traditional role of facilitator of campus culture and community while dealing with the trends toward retail, touchless service and expanded convenience the past year’s pandemic-influenced experience has fostered.

Meanwhile, there is also the issue of labor availability, which has been plaguing the entire foodservice industry since the beginning of the year, though one possible advantage college dining programs have in this area is that campuses are traditionally full of potential dining employees—assuming a sufficient number of them want foodservice work, that is. Still, it’s better than beating the bushes for the scarce adult bodies out there in competition with restaurants, retailers, manufacturers and other commercial employers.

Campus dining is also way ahead of other onsite dining segments like K-12 in the use of technology solutions like automated service points, mobile order platforms, ghost kitchens, food lockers and even delivery robots, so while labor will be an issue for college dining this fall, it will probably be less of one than for markets like K-12 and healthcare.

What WILL be a major issue is the number of customers available…

Holy Cross DiningSallytheRobot_copy.jpg

Automated service outlets like this Sally the Robot at College of the Holy Cross allow meal programs to expand to previously impractical locations while offering round-the-clock service.

While most colleges and universities plan a return to offering more or less a full schedule of in-person classes this fall, online alternatives will undoubtedly be much more prevalent than they were before the pandemic, and how that will impact on-campus population counts remains to be seen.

At the heart of the online-vs.-in-person debate—other than post-pandemic safety issues and cost factors—is the perceived attraction and value of the “college experience,” something that the campus dining program has traditionally played a major role in facilitating by offering venues and opportunities for students to mingle, socialize, collaborate and interact over food and drink.

However, just about all the trends imposed by the COVID era—takeout, remote order, touchless transactions, automated service points, socially distanced seating—have undercut that mission, and while some—socially distanced seating, for instance—will probably phase out, others undoubtedly will not only remain but expand, given that they had already been trending upward before March 2020. These include solutions that offer students more convenience in terms of when and where food and drink is made available and generally involve more automation and less personal interaction.

How that affects campus dining’s community building function remains to be seen.

Before the pandemic, there was a growing movement in higher education to foster more “campus community,” with some schools even going so far as to expand the number of students required to live on-campus, policies that generally included expanded meal plan purchase requirements to encourage students to take more meals in community.

Pandemic-imposed policies shot all that to hell, at least temporarily, and the question now is whether it can be revived. Just how feasible will it be for college dining programs to force students—some of whom may still be skittish about possible infection—to patronize large volume dining venues when takeout, delivery and even automated and touchless service points are increasingly available and easier than ever to access?

University of KansasKU_South_Dining_Commons_in_2017.jpg

How soon, if ever, will crowded dining hall scenes, such as this from the South Dining Commons on the University of Kansas campus four years ago, return to help rebuild campus community and social interaction?

Retail dining had already been growing on campuses pre-COVID, with many meal plans adding or expanding declining balance, campus cash and other components designed to accommodate preferences for retail-style a la carte service, a trend that has continued for this fall at some schools. The pandemic also boosted the move toward retail by forcing traditional dining halls to limit in-venue seating, offer takeout (and even remote order) and, in effect, “go retail” themselves. How far can they now revert to in-venue all-you-care-to-eat (AYCTE) operation even if/when regulators and individual institutions permit them will challenge programs that want to resume their community building role.

Another issue traditional AYCTE dining may have to deal more aggressively with going forward is sustainability, one component of which is reducing food waste. Unfortunately, AYCTE inevitably encourages more food waste than a la carte retail by its very nature, despite policies like trayless dining and the use of smaller serving plates. It also tends to promote overproduction, an issue some programs have dealt with by donating the excess to local social service agencies, a solution that may become more prevalent, driven by a combination of community need, student pressure, program conscience and, frankly, institutional self-interest, given the public relations value of such donations.

Meanwhile, college dining programs will be under some fiscal pressure to make up for the losses they incurred over the past year-plus, and perhaps even under pressure from their institutions to up their contributions to the general revenue stream. Currently, announced meal plan pricing policies have varied, with some schools imposing increases, others decreases and still others holding the line. These moves are probably each program’s best-guess placeholder designed to gauge student and family reaction that can guide future policies.

Looming over the fiscal picture is the disturbing recent rise in food prices, the last thing strained dining program budgets need at this point, especially when they are coupled with potentially rising labor costs.

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