When it comes to formulating a university dining program in the aftermath of a health crisis, not all foodservice directors are armed with historical experience to draw upon. And as operators navigate the uncharted waters of the COVID-19 pandemic, those bracing for a return to in-person classes this fall are performing a new calculus, crafting a variety of game plans to ensure a safe yet satisfactory dining experience for students.
In late May, Beth Emery was busy doing the math. The Boston College Dining Services (BCDS) director knows that her program normally serves about 22,000 meals per day at 11 cafeterias to 85% of BC undergrads.
Photograph courtesy of Boston College
But these aren’t normal times. After moving all classes online in mid-March, the Chestnut Hill, Mass., university continued serving meals to about 400 diners a day from a single hall: McElroy Commons, its largest. The protocols the dining team put in place then, such as social distancing guidelines and timers that alert staff to wash their hands every 30 minutes, will serve as a framework for when in-person classes resume on Aug. 31.
McElroy Commons will be open this fall, along with Stewart Dining Hall and Corcoran Commons, while eight other eateries will remain closed indefinitely. “In phase one [of re-opening], we will focus on the main three cafes and then consider opening more in phases,” Emery says.
“We formulated a new dining process in the spring, but broadly, we established a plan [years ago] in response to the  SARS pandemic,” she says, noting that a main task at hand is establishing how many students can be fed per venue within an hour’s time or less.
Here’s a look at several strategies BCDS is implementing:
Goodbye self-service. All self-service areas, including condiment, pizza and sushi stations, were shut down in the spring and will remain as such. When students line up six feet apart to order entrees, they, not staff, will swipe their meal cards, and cell phones should stay in backpacks or pockets.
Skinny menus. “We plan to have three hot entrees per day and will also offer another dozen grab-and-go items, such as grain bowls, wraps and sandwiches,” Emery says. “Unlike in the past, nothing will be customized for students, which will take some getting used to as students are used to going to the grill to select made-to-order.” Seating will be limited based on guidance from the state, Emery says, noting that “we are also collaborating with our campus colleagues to explore additional options for seating both indoors and outdoors.”
PPE enforcement. To ensure students comply with face covering rules—a task that may be tougher with young people who might not take the pandemic seriously—Emery says anyone not wearing one will be asked to leave: “We expect that the state will require students to wear masks in halls, which we will communicate widely.” For staff, the team has drafted a request for PPE across campus.
Expansion of mobile ordering. Though BCDS has successfully offered mobile ordering for a couple years, Emery says it’s been offered beyond the three core dining halls, which now will have to step up to fulfill demand. “We are determining how pickup will occur at the three halls. There’s a chance we expand it so orders can also be picked up at the other eight closed formats,” Emery says. “The key is looking at pickup spots that have the right spacing and aren’t confined. We won’t offer delivery, which takes a lot of work. So the resources that went to delivery will be used in cafes to support mobile staffing.”
A tiered approach
At Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., where the COVID-19 strategy has “been a work still in progress, and we’re still working to create a thoughtfully designed plan,” says Jonathon Miller, senior director of operations for Compass Group at Northwestern Dining, which encompasses four main dining cafes and 14 retail concepts.
Though the school has not officially announced its plans for fall, the preliminary protocols for dining will expand on those the team followed after classes went virtual in late spring, with three different tiers of service.
Photograph courtesy of Boston College
Tier 1, which would be put in place at cafeterias with less space, will feature stronger social distancing rules and not allow sit-down dining. Tier 3 is the most flexible model, in which, for instance, there might be an alleyway or adjacent open area that allows students more space naturally, says Jennifer Byrdsong, vice president of operations for Compass Group at Northwestern. The team would try to monitor numbers on a daily basis to make sure there’s a balance of diners across all three tiers.
In addition, “we’ll look at specific dining halls to decide if we can, for instance, do customization of meals safely,” Miller says. “We want to make sure we offer the most variety—healthy and balanced—while establishing a sense of normalcy. It’s a very fluid process that continues to be massaged.”
Impact on supply chain, sustainability
Other key components of college dining programs may remain in flux due to the pandemic.
The demand for BCDS catering is expected to decline, so Emery plans to use team members from that unit to help feed students. At NU Dining, “contactless catering has been introduced, and we will continue to honor the state and campus directives on the size of gatherings,” Byrdsong says, noting that “as Phase 4 is introduced, we can resume catering with new safety protocols.”
As far as sustainability goes, maintaining those goals at BC is non-negotiable. While there will be additional need for disposable materials, those used will be of the compostable and recyclable variety, Emery says.
Sustainability also remains a top priority for NU Dining, says Laura Lapp, vice president of culinary, wellness and sustainability: “We remain committed to avoiding use of Styrofoam, preferring products that degrade more quickly or easily, are made from post-consumer recycled products, or recyclable products.”
And which it comes to concerns around reusable cups or containers, a key component of many college sustainability programs, BC and NU are both seeking a way forward. “Commercial dishwashing is recognized as a safe and effective way to eliminate pathogens, including COVID-19,” Lapp says. “We are working to ideate creative ideas to utilize a reusable container system and still maintain track of it, so that students return a dirty empty container and pick up a clean one on their next visit.”
Supply chain disruptions lurk, but thus far, Emery doesn’t anticipate issues. “Our team has stayed in contact with primary distributors to make sure they will be ready for the fall,” she says. “They are telling us they can meet our supply needs.”
As for sustainable procurement of proteins, fruits and vegetables from local sources, Emery says this will be even more mission critical—so as to stand with local farmers across the U.S. who remain vulnerable in moving commodity products due to the pandemic.
At NU Dining, the team expects “all products to be readily available for school return, with very minimal disruptions this summer to the supply chain in general,” Byrdsong says. “We’re prepared with alternative menu and recipe plans should our campus experience significant impacts to labor due to COVID-19."