On March 25, the day Wisconsin’s stay-at-home order went into effect, the dining team at the University of Wisconsin-Stout started a campus meal delivery service for a small group of students that had to remain on campus. A few weeks later they added grocery delivery.
Most students went home during spring break in mid-March. Of more than seven thousand students at the university just 50 stayed, many of them international students. All remaining students were relocated to a single residence building, Red Cedar Hall, where each is living in a separate suite to make social distancing more manageable.
Knowing they would need to make meal service available, reliable and safe for those who remain, the dining team worked on getting a no-contact delivery service up and running.
“We really wanted to offer the delivery service to try and do the best we can to keep them safe and comfortable,” Krahn says.
To do so, they had to reimagine uses for existing online tools. They didn’t have time to source and vet online delivery platforms so the dining team spent a couple of weeks looking at digital resources and modified two of them—neither of which is intended for food delivery—to set up the delivery system. They settled on a campus survey tool as an order form and an e-commerce platform for meal and grocery orders and payment.
Students opt in to the meals they’d like, placing individual orders by certain times throughout the day. They pay through their student dining debit accounts. Meals cost the same as they do during the academic year: $1.50 for breakfast, $2.50 for lunch and $2.70 for dinner. Funds in the dining plan roll over to subsequent semesters and academic years.
Dining services coordinated with the housing team to set up second part of the delivery system. Dining prepares and packages meals and delivers them to Red Cedar Hall. The housing staff then delivers orders directly to students’ doors and lets students know their meals have been delivered through the housing notification system.
Because most of the dining staff was told to stay home at the start of the pandemic, the dining management team is now preparing daily meals. Each day, four of them prepare all the meals following the recommendations of the CDC and the local health department, including social distancing measures and sanitizing protocols.
The dining team delivers about 30 meals per day in disposable packaging (some of which is compostable) that they ordered in bulk at the beginning of the crisis. To date, they’ve completed about 1,800 transactions for students and a few members of the housing staff.
As far as the menu, the dining team is focusing on variety to help keep students’ options open and spirits up. Favorite entrées include custom vegetarian or chicken stir-fries, hummus wraps and fried chicken sandwiches. Meal choices change weekly and include an assortment of hot and cold sandwiches, vegetarian selections, stir-fries, pastas, rice dishes, salads, fruit and vegetable sides and french fries. Students can also order a dessert and a beverage. Breakfast options include bagels, cereal, fruits, hard-boiled eggs, pastries, milk and juice.
The team plans menus based on the ingredients they have on hand, but they continue to order ingredients through their partner vendors and have experienced no disruptions in the food supply chain. Dining services solicited student feedback after the program had been running for a few weeks through a feedback form and added a number of pasta and rice dishes based on their requests.
At the start of the grocery portion of the program, students could choose from about 50 items. Now that number is up to about 400 grocery items. Snack foods are the most popular grocery orders. Students also order quick-heat meals that they can prepare themselves; each suite has a microwave and a hot plate. Grocery item deliveries are dropped at the door along with the evening meal. Larger grocery orders carry a delivery fee but they will deliver a handful of grocery items at no additional cost.
The spring semester ended in mid-May, but they expect about 25 students to live on campus through the summer. The dining team will continue to provide meals during that time.
“Students have been very thankful for service,” Krahn says. “It gives them a little comfort knowing that this service is available, that we’re able to bring meals right to their door. In light of everything that’s going on, they know we’re trying to the best we can to keep them safe and they’re very appreciative of that.”