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Sandy Tests Onsite Dining Operators in the Northeast

Onsite dining operations in institutions from colleges and schools to hospitals and eldercare facilities in the Northeast were severely challenged by Hurricane Sandy.

Onsite dining operations in institutions from colleges and schools to hospitals and eldercare facilities in the Northeast were severely challenged by the recent storm Sandy. Hardest hit were New Jersey and the New York City area, where storm-related damage hampered utilities and transportation.

NYU Langone Medical Center, located in midtown Manhattan and close by the overflowing East River, had to be evacuated due to flooding and power failures. Currently, the Food & Nutrition Services Dept. is feeding a staff of facilities and inspection personnel who are assessing the facility, says Betty Perez, senior director of food and nutrition services.

"We are continuing to support NYU Langone, but differently," she says. With kitchen and production facilities shuttered, Perez set up a temporary dining operation in a breezeway of the lobby area. The food is brought in from three independent caterers with whom the hospital established a relationship. With cold storage unavailable onsite, prime vendor US Foods lent the hospital a refrigerated truck to hold perishable stock until needed.

The imported meals include both cold selections like wrap sandwiches and hot foods like pasta primavera and chicken parmesan. The ad hoc servery currently feeds about 450 for breakfast, 1,500 for lunch and over 250 for dinner, Perez says.

Onsite dining operations Whitsons Culinary Services, which is based in Islandia on Long Island near the most affected areas, has been running at full capacity during the emergency, says CEO Robert Whitcomb. The company not only manages onsite dining operations in various segments—especially K-12 schools—but also runs a prepared meal production center that supplies emergency meals to disaster aid organizations.

Whitcomb says the culinary center is now running 24/7 and preparing an average of an extra 50,000 unitized meals daily, in addition to its normal production of 50,000 daily meals.

These unitized meals are shelf stable full meals—such as a sandwich, sides and drink—that emergency services such as the Red Cross can hand out to people affected by the storm.

Meanwhile, Yale University in New Haven, CT, was well prepared for the storm, says Rafi Taherian, executive director of Yale Dining Services. “The university had an exceptional emergency plan,” he says. “Hurricane Irene had prepared us for this and we had a good plan in place based on what we learned from that storm.”

Yale cancelled classes for two days to keep students “off the streets” and Dining Services prepared some 1,400 care packages for students not near dining centers. Meanwhile, a limited staff kept the centers open with a menu that focused more on comfort foods, the cuisine of choice during stressful times, Taherian says. Hours during the two days were modified to reflect a weekend, with brunch and dinner dayparts.

To take care of employees, the department offered a free ice program that dispensed some 4,600 lbs. to help those with no power to their refrigerators as well as $5 discounted meals and free shower facilities.

K-12 schools have been significantly affected in the areas hit by the storm, even if the buildings themselves remained undamaged. Power outages, debris and displaced families are keeping some districts closed even days after Sandy passed. School buildings are also often needed to deal with emergencies, displacing their usual educational mission temporarily.

For example, Whitsons school sites around Long Island, where schools have remained closed due to lack of power and debris clogged roads, are serving as emergency shelters for those displaced from homes that have been wrecked or are without power. At these sites, the onsite staff is serving meals from the school kitchens using available stock and whatever is trucked in.

Schools in other areas where the company operates but which are further away from the most affected areas—such as Boston—have reopened and are being serviced as normal.

Whitcomb says Whitsons delivery trucks mostly run on diesel, which has been reliably available due to a pre-existing supply arrangement but he’s concerned that the gasoline powered vehicles may be affected by shortages in the area.

At a number of the company’s healthcare accounts, staff have been staying on site to make sure patients and residents are provided for, adds Whitsons Senior Vice President Kellyann Friend. Others make treks from home that can take several hours because of the clogged roads and lack of public transit.

Even so, some sites are severly short-staffed as employees either can’t get to work or have their own challenges with flooded homes, power outages and other displacement.

At one senior residential facility, “they’ve been running on generator power, so we’re trying not to tax the system by minimizing the use of kitchen equipment while still providing some warm food.” She says ordering has been a problem at this site because there is no internet connection. “The managers go to the local Starbucks where there’s free internet in order to make a connection.”

“It’s been an insane situation,” Whitcomb says, “but I can’t say enough for our whole team who have come together and sacrificed to make sure everything continues to operate and our customers and those depending on us get served. People have been sleeping in our office here, where we’re still running on generators because the power has yet to be restored.”

Whitcomb adds that if there is any bright side to this terrible situation, it was that the company and the area had enough advance notice of the storm’s approach to be able to prepare and set up for what was to come.

Perez says the entire episode shows the limits of planning. "We were definitely prepared with enough stock for at least three days and extra bottled water, but we didn't expect the rising flood and the supplies became damaged. We had to think quick and be resourceful. You can plan ahead but also expect the unexpected because there are so many variables that can impact what happens."

Her resourcefulness included the deals with the caterers, who answered a call to help. Perez says she is grateful but feels a little out of her element. "When you're in food and nutrition, you're used to providing service and now suddenly we're the client, which is quite a role reversal," she offers.

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