This is how colleges are feeding students during the pandemic

college feeding students

How are colleges feeding students during the pandemic? Very carefully.

Colleges and universities have gone to great lengths to protect their students during the pandemic, but there may be no greater worry among students and parents than food safety.

Rohan Arora is one of those concerned students. When he moved back to Richmond, Va., to start his sophomore year at Virginia Commonwealth University, he noticed the changes.

Self-serve stations had vanished. “All campus dining locations are cashless,” he says. In addition to the mask requirements and social distancing markers in dining areas, Arora noticed more made-to-order entrees on the menu.

“Honestly,” he adds, “both my parents and I are anxious about the start of the semester. I’ll do a lot more cooking instead of buying food from campus dining itself because of the risk of disease transmission.”

Colleges are feeding students without this

“Most schools won’t be offering buffets anymore,” says Laurie Kopp Weingarten, an educational consultant from Marlboro, N.J. “Prepacked lunches, without the option of going back on line for additional food, will not be as desirable.”

It’s not just the disappearing salad bars. The entire campus dining experience will be different, from the selections to the seating to how you settle up at the end of the line. College officials say it’s all about safety first, and while worried parents like that, it could also change college in ways few have even anticipated.

“The landscape of how the world works, lives and does business has tremendously changed in the face of COVID-19,” says Marletha Booker, a training director for a hospitality company that works with colleges and universities.

Many colleges in America are now obsessed with safety. Tyler Betzhold, University of Richmond’s executive chef, says his staff are cleaning constantly.

“We’ve always had very strict cleaning and sanitation procedures,” he says. “But those procedures have increased, taking place between every single shift. They now take place six times a day versus two.”

College food 101: the pandemic test

“Safety is our number one priority,” says Dan Roy,  who oversees campus dining at several of the University of Maine system campuses.

Roy has overseen a top-to-bottom overhaul of campus dining. They’ve installed new sanitizing stations with plexiglass barriers at cashier stations, and they’ve retrained staff to use masks and gloves, and to clean more frequently. College food safety is the most important consideration.

In the University of Maine system, the changes are far beyond what you can see. Before classes resume on Aug. 31, students will arrive on campus in shifts, where they must follow directives for COVID-19 testing and sheltering in place until the test results are in.

“Alternatively, they can provide proof of their own negative result from a health care provider,” says Roy.

The university will also require face coverings on campus. At the moment, campuses are busy putting together supplies such as masks, hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes as part of their welcome-back kits.

Many residence halls have switched to single-occupancy rooms and adopted plans to isolate or quarantine students, should they become infected. Everyone is responsible for completing a daily health screening and should stay home if they feel sick or are exhibiting any symptoms.

Can I get that to go, please?

But the biggest changes are in the dining facilities. Sodexo, the University of Maine’s system food service contractor, has planned for several reopening strategies. Some dining locations will implement “to-go” only dining, allowing students to select items in person to carry out. It has also expanded ordering through its “Bite” app, which allows students to place their orders without having to stand in line.

To ensure social distancing, dining halls are opening with capacity limits and adjusted seating arrangements. Additional measures include signage and floor decals to specify traffic flows and queueing areas.

“The biggest difference will be the change from socializing with friends in the dining hall,” says Roy. “It will be a more streamlined service that keeps traffic flowing quickly and orderly.  Menu items and beverages will be served in to-go containers with condiments and utensils individually wrapped. An expanded grab-and-go selection will be offered, including prepackaged salads, sandwiches, desserts and microwaveable meals to enjoy later in the residence hall.”

Colleges are feeding students with caution

In the last week, numerous colleges are limiting the number of students invited to return to campus this fall. They include Howard University, Mount Holyoke College, and Princeton University. There are a lot of worried parents — and students.

“Parents and students should know that nothing is more important to us than the health and safety of our students and entire campus community,” says Joseph Burdi, the dining resident district manager for North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. “It’s true, things will be different, but we are still committed to providing our students and employees with excellent food options and service.”

At North Carolina A&T State, a lot of precautions are already in place, in terms of college food safety. They include new health monitoring protocols, use of personal protective equipment, and timed sanitizing procedures.

In the dining halls, tables and seating were rearranged to offer at least six feet of space between students. That meant removing extra tables and chairs. Customers sitting at counters will be spaced at least six feet apart. And, per the governor’s executive order, no more than 50% of maximum occupancy will be allowed inside each operation.

Fortunately, coronavirus is not known to be a foodborne illness, says Tammy Penhollow, a Phoenix anesthesiologist and former preventive medicine officer in the Navy.

“The virus does not grow on food,” she says. “No known cases have been traced to handling food packaging, cooking, or consuming food. The risks are related to touching your face after handling a surface that has droplet particles of the virus on it, such as tabletops, chairs, food packages, and silverware.”

Dr. Penhollow says the best way to avoid this risk is to wash your hands with soap and warm water before eating, and using hand sanitizer between washings and if you touch any tabletop or chair surfaces during the meal.

Yes, we have cookies

Around the country, many institutions of higher learning are adopting similar protocols for college food safety.

At Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa., dining has transitioned from a self-serve operation to a plate-and-serve-operation. “A member of the dining service staff will plate the requested menu items and serve the plate to each student,” says Bob Mikus, interim vice president of student affairs and dean of students.

At Clark University in Worcester, Mass., officials cut seating capacity in Higgins Dining Hall from 360 to 160. “Self-service containers and disposable cups will be used instead of plates, and bowls, and traffic flow will be marked out to help with social distancing,” says spokeswoman Angela Bazydlo. “The cleaning regimen between meal periods will be enhanced.”

At Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Tex., officials have reduced their dining hours. “Our dining halls have always served meals all day long, but they will now have periods during the day where ‘to go’ is the only option to allow for cleaning of high-traffic areas,”  explains Jude Kiah, the assistant vice chancellor of student affairs. But TCU is keeping the cookies. “You won’t be able to walk up and grab one, but there will be cookies. It’s a matter of how they’re served, not an elimination.”

The precautions are almost as elaborate as those taken by the airline industry to keep passengers safe.

Mixed feelings about food safety

Even so, parents have mixed feelings about college food safety.

Robert Herbst, a consultant from Larchmont, N.Y., is sending his daughter back to Wake Forest University soon, where she is a senior.

Among the changes: Each student has to be tested and then quarantined for two weeks before entering campus. During meals, students must wear masks when they’re not eating and maintain social distance. Capacity is also limited and hours are staggered.

“Wake Forest has been bombarding us with messages about the precautions they are taking,” he says. “Which is good.”

Just yesterday, Herbst received another email that said Wake Forest was pitching tents on campus for student dining.

Chelsea Henderson, a consultant from Washington, D.C., is sending her son to Trinity University this fall. She’s also worried.

“Trinity is only permitting freshmen, local students, and those who already secured off campus housing to attend classes in person,” she says. “That allows every freshman to have a single dorm room. As for the cafeteria, gone are the days of meandering around the different food stations, wondering what to eat. The flow of traffic will be one way, in one door and out the other, and you take your meal with you to eat outside or in your room.”

She says she’s “comforted” by the steps Trinity has taken to keep kids safe and parents informed. The measures include a special COVID website where Trinity will publish daily the positivity rate once they begin testing incoming students.

“It’s certainly a scary time to send a child off to college, especially to a state that didn’t take masks and social distancing seriously,” she adds. “But now I have to trust the school that they are implementing all the promised security measures and trust my son to make good choices.”

Christopher Ulrich, whose son and daughter are attending the University of Florida this fall, says parents are deeply concerned about the food service operation.

“Campus dining has been a major concern for parents, with a tremendous amount of discussion in college parent groups on Facebook,” he says.

The restrictions for students using the meal plan are unprecedented. Students will use “to go” containers for food instead of typical plates. And they’re being encouraged to eat outdoors to avoid the risk of the spread of COVID-19.

“For our daughter, who is a freshman, we are still debating whether to use one of the meal plans or simply give her a budget to eat at the restaurants and food court,” says Ulrich, who runs a marketing agency in Melville, N.Y.

Flexibility when colleges are feeding students

Since COVID-19 outbreaks are unpredictable, campus food policies have been flexible. Some colleges are imposing strict no-visitor policies to keep the danger of contracting the virus to a minimum. Others have shut down part of their dining facilities.

Consider the situation in New Jersey, where the state’s Stage 2 restrictions limit on-premise dining.

“Student meals will be provided on a grab-and-go basis,” says Christopher Capuano, president of Fairleigh Dickinson University. “Students will be able eat outside or in their residence hall rooms. In addition, we are working on a delivery service so that students can order food from their favorite restaurants as part of their meal plan option.”

Capuano says the university is about to release new dining policies for incoming students, which will include a 15% discount on current meal plan rates.

Weingarten, the educational consultant, says these changes will alter the college experience in a fundamental way.

“Of course, colleges need to do whatever they have to in order to keep everyone safe,” says Weingarten. “Students understand that. It’s just unfortunate that it’s had to come to this. Campus dining is a big part of social life, particularly for freshmen, but that will just have to wait now until it’s safe again before it can resume.”

But Arora, the VCU student who is also an environmental health activist, says students will adjust to the new college food safety restrictions. They already have. Some are leaning toward preparing their own meals, like he is.

“Many of us are slowly becoming more comfortable with doing takeout or delivery,” he says. “I’m taking a wait-and-see approach to campus dining.”

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Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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