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Parkhurst Dining staff prepare sandwiches for distribution in a company test kitchen.

How onsite dining met the coronavirus challenge with innovation

An unprecedented crisis forced foodservice operators in every noncommercial market to improvise and adapt. Here are some of the ways they did it.

The year 2020 didn’t begin in January. It began in early March, because that’s when the world changed in a way it never had on any January 1 in history.

Coronavirus-imposed restrictions may have hit different onsite dining segments in somewhat different ways—stadiums and arenas completely closed while senior living facilities continued to operate basically at full capacity, for example—but every segment was challenged to come up with solutions more or less on the fly.

It is a tribute to the talent, dedication and improvisational skills of the people in the onsite dining markets that they were able in fairly short order to change—often radically—their operating models and continue to serve whatever customers remained, while keeping their own employees as safe as possible.

Here’s how innovators in the different markets approached their individual challenges.

Karen Ducey / Stringer / Getty Images Newspackaged meal distribution migrated from school sites to bus stops.jpg

District meal programs either using their own vehicles to make the deliveries or allying with idled district transportation departments to use school buses.

School’s out for…spring?

Alice Cooper may have celebrated the end of the school year at the start of summer, but almost no one (well, maybe some kids) were celebrating school being out while there was still snow on the ground in many parts of the country. While the academic teams in the nation’s K-12 school districts scrambled to put together online learning models, their school meal programs sought to develop a way to continue to feed those homebound kids.

The solution that emerged almost instantly was the curbside packaged meal distribution program that appeared almost literally overnight in districts such as Elk Grove USD in California that had just shut the doors to their schools. Initially utilizing stock already on hand and enlisting employees willing to come in to assemble and pass out the meals, numerous districts around the country were soon in the meal distribution business, abetted by regulatory waivers loosening restrictions on how, where and to whom school meals could be served.

It wasn’t long before that show went on the road as packaged meal distribution migrated from school sites to bus stops, community centers and even individual student homes, with district meal programs either using their own vehicles to make the deliveries or allying with idled district transportation departments to use school buses.

From standard breakfasts and lunches, K-12 off-site meal distribution also soon moved into more elaborate programs involving suppers and weekend meals, and even meals for families. Some such as Houston ISD worked with other public and private social service agencies to feed communities using school meal program resources and expertise.

As fall approached and schools began preparing for 2020-2021 classes, their meal programs faced the challenge of preparing for providing dual meal service depending on how each district decided to approach instruction—onsite, offsite or a combination of the two. With traditional in-school feeding models hampered by COVID-necessitated restrictions on self-serve and social distancing, schools have had to develop alternate models that expanded on the breakfast in the classroom model and multiple service points. Some extended dining to more areas around—and in some cases even outside—school buildings.

To serve remote-learning students, school districts are developing multiday meal packs that can be picked up once or twice a week rather than daily, easing burdens on both providers and parents while boosting the number of meals served.

Prince William-County-School-District-offers-families-breakfast-lunches-for-grocery-bags.jpg

A foodservice staffer at Potomac Middle School prepares to distribute grocery bags.

Here are a few recent innovations being rolled out by K-12 meal programs:

  • Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina began the school year fully online with a meal bundle program called CMS Eats at Home through which families can preorder meal bundles to be delivered once weekly or for pick up at one of 40 CMS sites. The bundles include five breakfasts and five lunches that families will be able to preorder using the district’s existing PayPAMS system.
  • A company called Wholesome Foodservice is partnering with a major Colorado public school district on a school meal preordering system that lets students remote-order meals from the school’s kitchen for later pickup. The system allows the meals to be customized, something very difficult to do otherwise given the constraints imposed on traditional self-service cafeteria lines by COVID restrictions. Other vendors as well as contract management companies are also developing and introducing their own preorder platforms that can be used by both onsite and remote learning students, a development that promises to bring K-12 foodservice into the mobile order culture already pervading the commercial restaurant world.
  • Prince William County Schools in Virginia is taking a step further in its meal distribution program by handing out grocery bags of ingredients (bread, milk, fresh produce, etc.) that families can use to construct their own meals rather than meals that are already prepared.
  • Elior North America’s K-12 division is utilizing the Preferred Foods unit to put together Mealtime Multi Packs of two, three or five weekly meals for remote learning students, depending on how many days they take online classes.


Stanford Dining has instituted rigorous safety protocols to keep staff and customers safe, including at-home health checks and temperature monitors to check employees before they enter the premises.

The campus food flight

While universities across the country shut down in-person classes last spring and sent students home, most retained some sort of onsite foodservice because some small portion of the student population with no other place to go—plus some necessary onsite staff—were still around. To serve these skeleton populations, dining services at these schools generally pivoted to all-takeout models, and some such as Virginia Tech even experimented with campuswide meal delivery services. Meanwhile, mobile and preorder platforms spread to provide a customization component to the new expanded takeout culture.

The experience with such a limited population through the bulk of the spring and summer has helped prepare the campus dining community for fall, when many schools planned to either fully or partly reopen for in-person learning—and even those that opted for fully remote classes to begin the year in many cases were still welcoming students back to campus.

To serve them, campus dining services are still heavily focused on take-away and mobile ordering, even in traditional eat-in, all-you-care-to-eat dining halls. While some schools have gone to universal takeout to maximize safety, other have allowed limited in-house dining to provide students some socializing space while keeping tables and chairs sufficiently separated.

Retail dining on many campuses, however, remains largely if not exclusively takeout—and often mobile-order oriented. In addition, dining departments have tried to provide additional communal dining spaces, especially outdoors and in unused areas like conference facilities, ballrooms and gyms.

Here are a few recent innovations being rolled out by campus dining programs:

  • Auburn University and Aramark are using automated food lockers that customers access with a personal code to receive mobile-ordered meals from campus dining outlets. The strategy keeps students away from service counters while allowing quick service response as the food is usually delivered fresh and hot to the lockers within minutes of ordering.
  • After being forced to limit its highly popular meal plans to resident students only as a COVID-necessitated response, Virginia Tech is augmenting dining service to commuter and off-campus students—and helping the local economy in the process—by partnering with local restaurants in a program called Blacksburg Delivers that lets students order dishes from participating establishments and have them delivered to designated pickup points on the campus.  
  • Maryville University and management company Fresh Ideas Foodservice have converted the school’s residential dining hall into a six-station ghost kitchen from which students can mobile order meals for either pickup or delivery.
  • Stanford University has instituted perhaps the country’s most stringent customer safety program by requiring students entering dining venues to wash their hands at mobile hand washing sinks outside the doors and to undergo a quick temperature check. Students whose temperature remains elevated after several checks are not allowed into the facility but can get what they want packaged and brought out. They are also sent to the campus health center for further evaluation.

More in store at hospitals

Hospitals have been in the eye of the COVID storm from the start, and their in-house dining departments have had to cope with reduced retail business resulting from the barring of most visitors from the premises, the closure of associated medical office buildings and out-patient clinics and the relegation of administrative staff to working from home, plus lower in-patient census numbers as discretionary and elective procedures were curtailed to keep capacity available for a potential COVID surge. To cap it all off on an ironic note, the flow of free and donated meals to hospitals from external restaurants, businesses and individuals looking to thank first responders only served to further reduce in-house retail food sales.

Operational pivots for hospital dining programs involved adjusting onsite retail food sales to take-out and grab-and-go models, not an easy change for cafeterias that traditionally relied significantly on self-service platforms like salad bars. Meal service in most cases was adjusted for COVID and potential COVID-infected patients to have nurses do tray delivery, with the meals generally served entirely with disposable dishes and utensils.

A major addition in many hospitals was the opening of a mini grocery/sundries store for the convenience of staff, often in now-empty spaces in the retail foodservice areas such as dining rooms. Some programs included prepared meals or meal kits as part of this expanded retail operation.

A few venues went even further to assist staff. For example, at Norton Hospital in Louisville, all on-site employees received a free meal voucher at the health system's expense beginning in late March. The result was that the hospital’s Compass One Healthcare dining team fed the entire hospital at all locations, including third shift, for approximately nine weeks, adding staff to cover the increase in business in all locations.


At ProMedica Hospital in Toledo, the fiesta-themed pop-up featured a simple menu of grilled chicken or steak fajitas with rice, pico, guac, sour cream and cheese.

Here are some other hospital foodservice innovations:

  • Spectrum Health Buttterworth Hospital in Michigan partnered with two local catering restaurants that were also severely affected by the pandemic to produce full microwaveable meals to go at a reasonable price. The meals were prepared in the restaurant catering kitchens, chilled, brought to the hospital and merchandised as a partnership between Spectrum and the restaurants in order to help strengthen relations with the surrounding business community. 
  • Like at most other healthcare facilities, meal service for COVID-positive patients at Beaumont Health in Michigan was delivered by unit nurses rather than foodservice staff, but with its traditional room service model, too much nursing time was taken up with this task, so meal service was modified to have trays delivered at one scheduled time each meal period so that the nurses could focus on that task rather than having to stop what they were doing for individual trays coming up.
  • The issue of delivering meals to COVID-positive patients was dealt with differently at UF Health Jacksonville, where beginning in August, dining staff started delivering food directly to those patients. The Compass One Healthcare team worked with the Infection Prevention team to train one associate per shift for the COVID unit, who delivered the food directly to the patients wearing all the necessary PPE and practicing all CDC protocols. The associate stayed on the unit throughout her shift while a single designated cart was used to deliver the food and then thoroughly sanitized between each trip.
  • At ProMedica Hospital in Toledo, the Sodexo dining team used its already planned outdoor cookout pop-up events to provide a boost for its retail dining program while giving hospital staff a series of much-appreciated distractions that featured different cuisines and themes ranging from Hawaiian luau and Mexican fiesta to New England clam bake and All-American ballpark favorites. 

Keeping their distance in B&I

Corporate dining programs took major hit as businesses across the country shut their doors and sent employees to work from home if they could. The venues that stayed open—often with much reduced numbers of staff onsite—and maintained some sort of in-house dining program mostly reverted to an approach similar to that practiced by colleges—lots of grab and go, takeout and order-ahead.

More disturbingly, businesses that might be expected to resume in-person work as soon as feasible—that is, companies with large, expensive, self-owned complexes designed specifically to bring employees together to collaborate while offering retention- and recruitment-boosting amenities like premium onsite dining—have been in the forefront of extending work-from-home policies well into next year, led by major West Coast high-tech concerns such as Google, Twitter and Facebook. How that will affect their in-house dining programs long-term remains to be seen but the short term has brought severe curtailments and layoffs of dining and other facility support staff.

Nevertheless, corporate dining providers have managed to develop innovations that are keeping them afloat as the pandemic continues while poising them for the post-pandemic world when workplace culture changes accelerated during the past six months are expected to have lasting effects.


Freshly, known best for its home meal delivery service, expanded into the business dining market with Freshly For Business, which contracts with employers to provide meals for their staff on terms set by the client business.

Here are some innovations developed for the business dining world in recent months:

  • Sodexo has developed a dining platform called Modern Recipe that is designed to operate in a COVID and post-COVID environment by offering appealing, diverse and safely prepared and served food choices from multiple serving stations. Already implemented in several major venues in markets like New Orleans and Buffalo, Modern Recipe cafés offer customized meals tailored to local food cultures and preferences. 
  • At the administrative offices of healthcare firm Penn State Health in Hershey, Pa., the Metz Culinary Management team has developed a take-home meal program designed to serve various-sized families that not only offers customers a convenient and tasty alternative to home cooking or commercial takeout but also gives the onsite dining program an additional revenue stream that might remain feasible even after the pandemic passes. 
  • Another corporate dining provider, AVI Foodsystems, is partnering with major financial firm Fifth Third Bank on a daily free meal program for Fifth Third employees who work onsite in the company’s support services complex in Madisonville, Ohio, and Grand Rapids, Mich. The free meals are supplemented with purchasable grab-and-go and custom-prepared choices as well as snacks and beverages from the onsite cafés and micro markets. 
  • A potential new revenue stream for dining providers serving businesses was recently piloted by the home-meal-delivery firm Freshly, which is offering contracts for businesses to provide delivered meals to employees working from home as an amenity replacing the workplace café. 

Mark A Newman / Contributor / Moment Mobile / Getty Imagesseniors-in-dining-room-at-senior-center.jpg

Legacy Retirement Communities hopes to have two dinner seatings a night capped at 50 residents and offer independent living residents the chance to dine in-person up to three times a week to give everyone a chance.

Senior service stops at the door

Perhaps the segment least affected in terms of business lost during the pandemic is the one which serves the most vulnerable demographic—senior dining. When COVID hit, most senior living and nursing care facilities locked down, isolating their residents away from possible contagion from staff, visitors and even each other.

The result was that meal service in environments where it had previously been a communal and congregant activity was now relegated to individual service as dining rooms and cafés were shut down and meals delivered even to independent living residents. But while this maximized resident safety, it also increased isolation and loneliness that can lead to physical and psychological deterioration in seniors.

To counter this while still maintaining safe distancing protocols and other safety measures, providers of dining services in senior communities are coming up with some innovations and solutions. Among them are:

  • A live-streamed cooking show residents can view that is put on by Cura Hospitality Senior Dining Chef Eileen Goos at Presbyterian Communities of South Carolina is an example of the kind of extra engagement service dining programs in senior living facilities can provide in the absence of traditional physical attendance events like dining room cooking demos.   
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