The labor shortfall that has hit foodservice outlets in venues ranging from airports and ballparks to schools and restaurants is also impacting campus dining programs as colleges and universities embark on their fall terms with hopes of getting back to some form of normal following more than a year of pandemic imposed limitations.
For instance, the University of New Hampshire recently announced the delayed opening of its Stillings dining hall, one of the three main dining halls on the Durham campus, due to lack of sufficient labor, and the reallocation of its remaining staff to the two other dining halls.
Unfortunately, the closure of Stillings has forced a lot more student traffic and large crowds to those other venues, posing a potential virus-related safety hazard due to the crowding.
UNH Dining says it is hoping to reopen Stillings as soon as it can once it recruits a sufficient number of workers.
At the University of Alabama, one Starbucks location has recently been forced to close and another temporarily shut its dining room due to staffing shortages, while staffing issues have caused erratic changes in operating hours for a number of dining outlets that have frustrated students at the University of Tennessee, which just debuted a major new dining hall.
The school and dining services provider Aramark have urged students to “refresh their browser” when it comes to location hours as they do try to keep the hours of operation as updated as possible in real time, and are dealing with the situation in various ways ranging from increasing POD and Grab-and-Go deliveries to make sure the cases remain fully stocked as much as possible and periodically providing food trucks on campus as a dining alternative. They are also adjusting the meal plan to provide a greater range of options, including allowing the food trucks to accept Dining Dollars, Flex Plan and Vol Card Dollars and adding a meal swipe option for lunch and dinner at the national brands and introducing Good Uncle—acquired by Aramark several years ago—in the POD Market c-stores. Chris Cimino, the senior vice chancellor for finance and administration, has also suggested that dining will be adding a “full meal deal” as well as some extra dining dollars in hopes that it can help some students grab a meal at all retail locations.
Meanwhile West Virginia University has announced that a number of dining services across its Morgantown campus will be closed for the foreseeable future as WVU and dining services provider Sodexo work to secure enough staff. Dining Services HR Manager Tiffany Peden attributes the problem to competition for the available labor and lingering concerns about COVID.
“WVU Dining Services has been working diligently all summer to get staffing numbers to pre-COVID levels,” she said. “However, as other restaurants in the area have also been getting back to full-scale operations, there is a shortage of available labor in the local food industry. Additionally, despite the many safety precautions we have in place, many people are still not comfortable working in busy environments due to the pandemic, so we have seen less applications.”
It’s even more dire at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, which has closed 17 on-campus dining facilities due to staffing issues, while those that remain open have had to limit menu options, not the best look after the school increased the cost of housing and dining this year. Among the incentives it is offering for recruits is a free meal every four hours.
Appalachian State University in North Carolina, meanwhile, has temporarily closed four dining locations due to staff shortages while it tries to get more workers, especially students, for whom it has increased starting pay from $8.50 to $10 an hour, with a raise applied each semester they continue working, plus a free meal with each shift. To alleviate some of the impact on student customers of dining services, Appalachian State Campus Dining has partnered with local restaurants and food trucks to offer more alternatives.
Loyola Marymount University (LMU) Dining in California recently posted a notice saying that it “recognizes that students have been experiencing long lines in our facilities this past week” due to a staff shortage and supply chain issues that may continue to affect its services throughout the school year. In addition, multiple dining locations have signs that read "Due to food and labor shortages, our menu might be limited. We are sorry for the inconvenience. Please check with your cashier about what is available on our menu.” That included the campus Starbucks, which stopped offering food and limited its menu after 8 p.m. to iced tea, iced coffee, black coffee and cold brew (excluding cold foams).
Like some other schools, the LMU dining program is trying to alleviate the impact by expanding options to off-campus providers like food trucks that are being allowed on campus at certain times. Meanwhile, LMU Dining is working towards addressing its staffing shortage by partnering with local culinary schools and job placement programs and offering a “highly competitive compensation and benefits package” and bonuses.
The staff shortfalls have other implications besides their impact on operating hours and menus. At Purdue University, staffing levels dictate what kind of serving ware is used. On days when the dining courts have enough workers to wash dishes, plastic plates and bowls are used, but on days with low staff, only paper plates and bowls are available. “This is the simplest way to not make the staff who come here feel overworked or that they need to be doing too many things,” says Azrielle Nunnally, director of dining operations. “Obviously, food is the number one priority, so we don’t want to take away staff from making and preparing the food.”
In a creative twist, the Purdue Dining has leveraged the use of the waste-generating disposables in the student recruitment process, hanging paper plates in dining court queuing areas with messages saying, “We don’t like paper plates either. Come work for us!”