COVID-19 forced colleges across the country to suspend in-person classes earlier this month, urging students to move out of their dorms and return to their permanent residences to finish courses online. But many students couldn’t leave campus due to travel restrictions. And once spring break is over, others will have to return.
In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, college dining operators are scrambling to find ways to feed both students and staff with limited facilities and safety restrictions in place. Creativity has not left the campus, as these programs prove.
Shifting managers to the food pantry
At University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, 35% of residential students remain on campus, Steve Mangan, senior director of Michigan Dining, said earlier this week. “We hope to see a reduction in that number as more students return home, but in the meantime, we have moved to all takeout in our nine dining halls,” he says.
Mangan has also shifted some of the management team to the campus food pantry, dubbed Maize and Blue Cupboard, because student staff and volunteers are back home. With several campus retail operations shutting down on short notice, they are also shifting perishable inventory around, some of which is ending up in the food pantry. “We’re being very aggressive to avoid any loss of fresh products,” says Mangan, adding that the Maize and Blue Cupboard will be open throughout the crisis to feed students and community members in need.
Michigan Dining will not be laying off staff or students that must work, he says, and the university has created a one-time sick bank fund to help those in need to manage through quarantine, isolation or family care.
Free tote bags for takeout
On its Bethlehem, Pa., campus, Moravian College Dining Services handed out free tote bags and to-go containers so students visiting the dining halls can carry food back to their residences. While many college dining programs have cut back to cold menu items only, Moravian’s Simple Servings station features grilled chicken, vegetables and rice, along with a prepared green salad. Sandwiches, prepackaged fruit cups and desserts, and breakfast sandwiches are also available.
Spontaneous food bank for staff
When George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., made the decision on March 16 to transition to online classes for the remainder of the semester, everything had to close down quickly. “In the midst of the closedown, I realized something: We have an abundance of product on campus that will likely expire before we reopen,” says Bridget Bukovich, marketing director for Sodexo, the college’s foodservice provider. “I thought it would be best to donate it where we could make the most impact in our community—our employees.” In about 20 minutes, she and her team planned to set up the Mason Dining Food Bank, hosted by a few managers two days later.
Employees were invited to stop by—five at a time to maintain social distancing—and fill up a reusable shopping bag of groceries. On hand was fresh produce, eggs, milk, bread, peanut butter, mac and cheese, butter, cheese and snacks. One recipient said, “Everything I needed that was sold out at the grocery store you have here. This is amazing,” while another said the food bank gave her peace of mind that she didn’t know she needed. “Hands down, this was the most positive thing I have ever done at work,” Bukovich says. “We provided food to about 150 employees from all backgrounds, ages and family situations and seeing the management come together for their employees might even top Sodexo’s Starship [delivery robot] launch for me.”
Delivery to the dorm
Students are on spring break until March 23 at Howard University in Washington, D.C., but not all have left campus. The school’s dining services, managed by Sodexo, are supporting those students with daily boxed meal delivery to the residence halls. The boxes include a sandwich or salad, apple, bag of chips, cookie and bottle of water. If students somehow miss a meal, they can contact marketing manager Amanda Vargas via direct message on social media to arrange immediate delivery.
Build-your-own breakfast bag
While most students are on extended spring break at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark., international students and those whose family members have compromised immune systems remain on campus. With the removal of all self-serve stations, dining services came up with a creative idea to provide breakfast every morning: the build-your-own breakfast bag.
Each evening at dinner, students select breakfast items and snacks for the next morning. A dining employee fills the bag with bakery items and other nonperishables, and students can also request a cold bag for juices, yogurt, etc. “This ensures that our students are getting a breakfast meal each day while keeping labor costs down and eliminating a meal session,” says a Sodexo dining team member.
Changing the meal schedule
William & Mary College in Williamsburg, Va., is cutting meal service down from three meals to two, switching to only brunch and dinner seven days a week. All the food is served in single-use compostable containers, there’s no refilling of water bottles and staff swaps in clean serving utensils every 30 minutes, according to a team member. Dining services is also transitioning to online ordering to reduce waste and save labor.
Hospitality still an important ingredient
About 500 students remain on campus at University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va. All retail locations are shuttered and dining hall seating is closed, but food is available for takeout. Along with a few hourly cooks and utility managers, managers are stepping in to help prepare meals to keep labor costs down. “Most importantly, in this stressful time, we are making sure we engage with the students in very positive ways—always remembering to smile,” a dining team member wrote in an email. “We’ve been really impressed by how much the students appreciate us, too.”
The business community steps in
In cities with large college populations, students who are mandated to leave campus often have no place to go. The Bostonian Boston hotel recently launched a plan to provide affordable housing for displaced university students and faculty. The UniversityHousing Package provides a hotel room, free Wi-Fi and breakfast. Other companies have also stepped in to help displaced students: U-Haul has extended 30 days of free self-storage to new customers with college IDs, and Enterprise Rent-A-Car is waiving its young renter fee and reducing its minimum age for car rentals to 18.