Novel as the new normal | College and university dining in the COVID era

August 18, 2020 Central 1

As the fall semester looms for U.S. colleges and universities, schools are bracing for dramatic changes to the way they teach, house and feed students in order to protect campus communities from COVID-19.

Dining operations, often a campus point of pride (and student recruitment), are having to make major, and often creative, shifts in how, what and where they serve food.

How schools are responding

In keeping with the CDC’s recommendations for food service in colleges and universities, institutions are taking steps to reduce personal contact, whether in face-to-face interactions or via commonly touched surfaces.

The National Association of College & University Food Services (NACUFS) is gathering ideas on its resources page for everything from plexiglass shields to contactless payments, dining room configuration, disposable containers and utensils, cleaning, and even “get well soon” food boxes for students quarantining.

Some commonly implemented adaptations include removing self-serve food and beverage stations like salad bars, reducing indoor seating, encouraging or even mandating meal takeout or delivery, and increasing alternative options like grab-and-go or meal packages.

Other tactics being utilized at various institutions include permitting only touchless payment options, instituting dine-in reservations and installing contactless kiosks for remote ordering. Schools are experimenting with everything from low-tech options like outdoor tents to high-tech ones like robots for meal delivery.

Services that were previously treated as a novelty are now helpful supports to relieve the burden on workers who are busier with enhanced cleaning and serving responsibilities.

“The goal is to mitigate the amount of traffic without permanently impacting the long-term value or quality of dining service,” said Robert Holden, associate vice president of auxiliary services for the University of Georgia, who spoke recently to LTI leadership regarding the unique needs and challenges facing college dining.

What schools need

Accommodating the necessary changes will require colleges and universities to make adjustments to their kitchen and dining room operations.

  • Introducing or expanding mobile dining options

Reducing traffic in traditional dining halls will be challenging as long as it’s the primary place to get food. Introducing or expanding remote or mobile feeding options can help schools manage traffic flow — and make it more convenient for students by bringing their meals closer to them.

LTI’s ExpressLine mobile counters can be loaded with hot or cold pre-packaged foods and set up in remote locations to offer students and staff an easy grab-and-go option. Classroom buildings, dorm lobbies, student centers and more quickly become satellite dining stations — both for immediate COVID-related feeding needs and potentially for long-term adaptations to make dining more convenient.

“Convertibility of equipment for future use is really important so that the piece will be useful to the institution beyond the feeding needs created by COVID,” Holden said.

  • Converting self-serve stations to staff-serve

Reconfiguring what was once self-serve stations to staff-serve stations will often require some retrofitting. Installing new food shields prevents diners from reaching for food out of habit and creates a physical barrier between servers and diners.

In response to this need, LTI has developed a buffet conversion kit that turns buffet lines into full-service lines and includes an optional opening to hand plates or prepackaged foods under the protector.

  • Extending food holding periods

One option for reducing concentrated traffic in dining halls is to extend available dining hours, encouraging a trickle of students throughout the day rather than a flood at peak dining times.

In order to make this kind of adjustment, though, kitchens must ensure equipment can hold food at safe hot or cold temperatures for longer periods — and make adjustments or additions as needed.

  • Monitoring costs

Even as schools invest in new equipment or retool existing equipment, efficiency and cost of ownership will continue to be critical considerations, said Holden.

Some sustainability initiatives may take a backseat to safety in the short-term, particularly when it comes to things like disposable dining ware, but these goals will likely continue to be part of the fabric of the institution both during and beyond the coronavirus crisis.

“Equipment that monitors and maintains temperature is helpful from both an efficiency and a maintenance perspective,” Holden said.