Like almost every other university in the country, Iowa State University (ISU) cancelled in-person classes this spring and sent students home. That left its campus dining service with a skeleton customer base of only about 500 students who were unable to leave—a small fraction of the 35,000 regularly on campus during the school year.
To serve those students efficiently, ISU Dining put together a preorder system through which the remaining students can use their residential meal plans to preorder breakfast, lunch and dinner a week in advance, specifying and customizing their choices, including for dietary preferences and restrictions. They then pick up a day’s worth of meals each day at three locations around campus. Students whose rooms lacked refrigerated storage or reheating capability were provided by the department with MicroFridge units that combine a refrigerator, freezer and microwave in one piece of equipment.
In addition, to serve the remaining students as well as adult staff still on campus, a couple of retail locations remained open for takeout service only and the school opened a food pantry in late April to serve students and their families. In addition to a variety of foodstuffs, the pantry offers recipe cards created by campus dietitians to provide meal ideas utilizing the products available at the pantry.
Photo: Iowa State donated extra N95 masks it had on hand for its own operations to first responders and other front-line personnel in the community.
“We also have snacks like chips and candy bars from our convenience stores that are no longer open to accompany the meals, and then we also have an array of leftover cans and bottles and they can select one for each meal,” explains Karen Rodekamp, assistant director of engagement for ISU Dining.
“Our executive chef Scott Bruhn developed a two-week cycle menu keeping in mind what we already had in available, and then we spent the first week getting feedback,” she says. “After that first week, it worked quite well with the adjustments we made.”
Meanwhile, the department made its capabilities useful for the community by putting its warehousing and delivery capabilities in action in support of the local Ames community, transporting some three tons of food from the Food Bank of Iowa to the Ames and Nevada school districts.
“The Food Bank of Iowa, which is in Des Moines, serves Story County [where ISU is located] but didn’t have the resources like refrigerated trucks, so we offered to help out by using our refrigerated trucks to pick up the food in des Moines, then bring it back and distribute it [here],” says Jamie Lenz, ISU Dining’s assistant director for support services. “There are also other donated products like from United Way where they have the product but no way to distribute it, so we went and picked it up at the company [Barilla Pasta] that donated it, brought it back to our facility, broke it down into smaller portions and then we distributed that to 18 different pantries around Story County.
Because it already had significantly more stock on hand for the coming semester than it needed when the shutdown came, ISU Dining ended up donating a fair amount. For instance, coffee.
Photo: ISU Dining staffers brought in sewing machines and turned unused uniform T-shirts into masks that were then given away or used by dining staff.
“Our team was pretty creative,” observes John Greving, marketing coordinator for ISU Dining. “For instance, regarding the whole beans, someone suggested, ‘Hey, why don’t we just go into our facility and grind it up, then find those organizations and first responders that would probably appreciate it.’ So they did—they packaged it all up and then started making calls asking ‘Would you like a couple bags of this?’ and we were surprised by how receptive and appreciative people were. It was a real feel-good for everyone involved.”
It wasn’t just excess foodstuffs that were put to use. For instance, ISU Dining usually supplies each of its some 1,800 student workers each semester with a uniform T-shirt. These were left unused so some of the cooking staff brought in their sewing machines used the shirts to create face masks for the team and also local food pantries, university staff and others who may need them. Meanwhile, excess stocks of more professional N95 masks the university had on hand for its own use were donated to first responders and other front-line personnel in the community.
Dining staff volunteers are also lending other campus departments a hand as a way to keep busy, for instance helping the custodial staff clean dorm rooms and apartments and setting them up for the fall term, testing fire and smoke detectors and assisting with landscaping tasks.
“This way we’re distributing our staff so we don’t have so many in one location, and also utilizing them in areas where we normally have to hire students who’d have to be on campus while keeping our staff [working],” Lenz observes.