For 26 years, the Tastes of the World Chef Culinary Conference, the brainchild of University of Massachusetts-Amherst’s Ken Toong, has been a place for college and university chefs to meet, greet, learn, cook and compete. This year, it wasn’t a physical place, but it was a virtual one.
In the past, the popular event has taken place on UMass’ campus. This year, the conference went virtual, with chefs, journalists and foodservice community members attending learning sessions and activities through their laptops.
The conference’s focus this year, planetary health and the impact of COVID-19 on college and university dining, featured programming to help college culinary teams adjust to the “new normal” as time marches forward to the next academic year.
Lisa Eberhart, RD, LDN, CDE, director of nutrition and co-founder of Menu Analytics, led a session called Supporting Health and Wellness in the New Normal.
Eberhart addressed several factors and coping strategies emerging in college dining—altered academic calendars, streamlined menus, increased mobile ordering and grab and go, meal kits, expanded mobile ordering, reduced seating capacity and more—and then dove into data from Nutrislice digital dining, in which 51% of students are somewhat concerned about ordering and paying for food on campus and close contact with foodservice staff when they return. In the survey, 33% of students were “extremely concerned.”
The negative impact on college dining makes chefs and directors “afraid it’ll make meal plans less desirable and that dining halls aren’t a social hub anymore,” Eberhart says.
Due to concerns about coronavirus likely to continue well into the fall, “there will be a heightened concern about wellness,” Eberhart says, something she’d like to see college dining lean into.
Despite limitations on styles of service and the need for social distancing, “I think foodservice professionals should seek every opportunity to provide the highest level of service possible,” she says.
Change the narrative from preventing illness to staying well
Being a partner in health and wellness means dropping the “stealth health” and letting students know your dining program is here to keep people well, period, Eberhart advises.
“Don’t make it stealth health,” she says. “Make it well known that dining is an ally to students’ personal wellness. Make sure customer understands first and foremost, you’re working to keep them well. Reframe ‘we’ll keep you safe’ into ‘we will keep the customers and the employees well.’”
An example of a poster to communicate your wellness strategy with customers includes info on team member safety (health checks, masks and gloves); constant sanitization, contactless pickup and socially distanced dining.
Mobile ordering should provide info at your fingertips
Eberhart emphasizes the need for technology to carry out the best-laid wellness plans. Luckily, “colleges and universities have led the way when it comes to technology, with campus cards, meal plans, computerized planning and inventory control systems,” she says, adding that now is a good time to re-evaluate your systems and make sure there’s a “central place of truth.”
Too many systems “can be complicated and it leads to redundancies,” Eberhart says, “so I’ve been proposing that you have one central place of truth: a food production database that has all the relevant information about your menu; you make one change and have it matriculate out to all points of contact.”
As your customers have gotten more and more comfortable ordering from restaurants online, they are used to having all the nutritional information, allergens and ingredients at their fingertips, Eberhart says. “It’s a way to communicate to your customers what is in your food and communicate it accurately with less face-to-face interaction. Make sure the digital platform you invest in has the ability to provide allergen and nutritional information, the same way Amazon lists the details about their products. The data and technology will tell your story. In this very digital age, technology can make or break you.”
Don’t forget about special diets
Eberhart cautions that the focus on grab and go might shake the confidence of your customers on special diets, whether it’s gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian or religious.
“As you modify your system in so many ways, don’t forget about students with special dietary needs,” she says. “Make sure you tell that story. Use social media and use your chefs. And make sure dietitians have a seat at the table in making sure every customer feels heard and every customer stays well.”
Contact Tara at [email protected].
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