As families face college choices and more colleges consider their plans for the fall, college dining halls should be in their thoughts. College dining halls matter for the most obvious reason: the students have to eat.
Back in the late 70s and early 80s, I would see a sign ‘Come Early, Avoid the Lines’ whenever I stopped to eat at Brower Commons, Rutgers’s main dining hall. But I see nothing like that in college dining halls today. Virtually every college that I have visited over the past eight years redesigned its dining halls. The dining halls offer students more convenience and greater flexibility with a meal plan than ever before. Chefs post meals in advance. So, if a school has more than one dining hall, students can choose where they want to eat based on finding the foods they like.
But most college dining halls were not designed around a pandemic. Dining halls resemble a food court in a shopping center. Only college students do not need to carry cash after they get food from each server. They pick up their food and come back for more. But I cannot imagine food stations where students wait in line six feet apart. It’s impossible for me to picture a dining hall where students cannot not eat together in small groups.
So, when campuses reopen, how might dining services adapt to a new reality of a pandemic?
Fedele Bauccio, CEO of Bon Appetit, which serves meals at 65 colleges, offered these comments in an open letter to clients on March 19th:
We have a 24/7 Response Team who can directly coordinate with a national network of partners and your onsite manager to ensure immediate deployment of a portfolio of emergency solutions, including expanded food offerings such as grab-n-go, ready-to-heat meals, lunch boxes, etc.
There are the best possible meal options outside of a dining hall. In an emergency situation. But even if a school works with a response team, the first question you must ask is: how “good” will the food be? Will that meal be as good, or as healthy, as the one that I could pick up fresh at the dining hall? Is it as good, hopefully better, than something I could buy from a place I know? Go to the right school, and you can use that meal card at places you do. Check out the name brand dining places on any college campus. You will see crowds at meal times around the Chick-Fil-A. I can assure you that you will also meet students who wish for Chipotle on campus, even if Mo’s or Queba are already there.
I live near a school, The College of New Jersey, where the nearby Panera does a great job at catering to students on campus. They can walk in, or pull up to the drive-thru, order a soup or salad, and take it home. Or you can have it delivered on campus.. A college student might already think of Panera as a comfort from home. She might also have a refrigerator to store her salad and a microwave to re-heat her soup. That one meal might be good for two days. Panera meals are not cheap. But over two days they turn out to be less expensive than the meal plan.
So, here’s my next question: will students be allowed to have mini-refridgerators and microwaves in their rooms at a fair price? They’re more likely to be asked to eat in their rooms if social distancing restrictions remain in place. Then, if a school expects them to eat in privacy, what will be the rules for cleaning up? There are other “guests” that would be unwelcome in a residence hall if the mess piles up too long.
And there’s a few more questions that you will need answers. These are:
Now more than ever, colleges need to earn the trust of parents of their current and future students. Attention to detail in the college dining halls and meal plans is going to be one way that they can earn and keep that trust.
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