This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Food Management.
As universities return to on-campus learning this fall, campus food service operations stand ready to nourish students, staff and others, sometimes a full year after being closed or partially operational. For this reason, food service professionals on college and university campuses have returned to an environment that is in some ways the same, but in many ways different than the one they left prior to the pandemic shutdown in the spring of 2020.
In light of these changes, food service professionals continue to rewrite the playbook for safely reopening on-campus eateries. Learn how to prepare for the three new major changes and prioritize food safety under the new conditions.
- New places
As if standing back up eateries after a long hiatus weren’t enough of a challenge, mere weeks into the school year, the delta variant is surging. In response, many universities are adjusting protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Some have opted to transition to pick-up only orders, closing in-house dining service in an attempt to prevent disease spread. Making the shift from in-house dining to online ordering and pick-up is no small task, either from an operational or food safety perspective. The importance of keeping hot food hot and cold food cold is paramount to the prevention of foodborne illness. However, with pick-up only service, the variables just changed. Instead of food being kept in a steaming table designed to maintain food at 135°F or in a refrigerated food case until selected by the diner, orders must be individually packaged and set aside until they are retrieved, which may be longer than expected. Managing food safety under these conditions requires some additional planning and resources. Consider these activities if you are making these same modifications to your dining facilities.
• Tracking order times—Food should be maintained at the proper heated or refrigerated temperatures for as long as possible. Construct operational processes for order fulfillment with this important food safety principle in mind. Whether delaying the packaging of hot or cold foods until the last minute or establishing a process for unretrieved orders to be returned to heated or refrigerated units, maintain food temperature to help protect from foodborne illness.
• Invest in equipment—Many campus dining facilities are not outfitted with convenient refrigerated cases near the register or heating lamps that can be found in commercial foodservice establishments. However, new investments may not only enable the establishment to prioritize food safety but may also position the establishment to continue offering pick-up as an option to diners after facilities reopen.
- New faces
As we return to business after extended shutdowns, labor shortages abound. This results in two challenges: new employees who are completely new to food service and managers who are expected to do more with less. Employees who are completely new to food service may have little to no training on food safety practices. They may not understand the fundamentals of food safety such as the importance of handwashing between preparation of certain food items or the dangers of cross-contamination on surfaces. Food service personnel must be trained and educated on the importance of food safety and the dangers if proper food safety protocols are not followed.
Meanwhile, managers may find it difficult to prepare to pivot in response to the ever-changing environment if fewer employees are available. Automation technologies can help to relieve the burden on staff, allowing them to focus on the most critical tasks at hand.
- New suppliers
Shortages represent an ongoing symptom of the global pandemic. As supplies wither, many food service professionals find themselves seeking alternative suppliers. This diversification can be a good long-term strategic move, but thoroughly evaluating suppliers for quality, food safety and other practices prior to acquiring food from them proves essential. Before placing an order with a new supplier, ask the following questions:
• What is their food safety record, history of outbreaks?
• Do they have traceability and an emergency notification system in place in case of a food contamination issue and can they track batch to box and customer?
• What food safety protocols do they have in place?
• Do they have third-party auditors conducting regular inspections?
Don’t relax your practices for vetting suppliers just to access needed foodstuffs.
Working in on-campus food service during the pandemic challenges managers and employees alike. Keep your creative juices flowing, your operations flexible and be prepared to try new things to improvise in today’s unexpected conditions. However, amid all the change, continue to prioritize food safety to maintain a healthy community.
Michael Sperber serves as global business manager for UL’s Everclean, a leading third-party retail food safety and sanitation audit program designed to help retail food service businesses optimize their food safety practices.