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Safely Serving College Students During the Coronavirus Pandemic

While providing meals for thousands of hungry college students has always taken careful considerations, the COVID-19 pandemic has given college and university food service coordinators an extra set of challenges. In addition to keeping students well-fed, campus food service administrators must now take added precautions to guard against spreading the coronavirus, such as social distancing and reimagined dining areas.

Learn more below about the new expectations for college and university dining services, along with some of the best COVID-19 safety practices for campus dining services to follow.

Changing Expectations for College & University Dining Services

College students and their parents have always expected their campus dining services to protect their health and safety. These days, there is a heightened expectation for campus dining services to practice proper COVID-19 safety protocols and provide alternative dining options for students who don’t feel comfortable dining in person.

Specifically, college and university dining services are seeing a greater push for to-go options. These serving methods allow students to quickly pick up their meals and leave without coming into close contact with any other students or campus employees. Some on-campus dining centers may even get designated as “to-go only” locations.

To mitigate any potential of spreading the coronavirus, pre-packed meals are preferable to having students fill up a personal to-go container. Buffets, in general, are no longer a campus dining hall norm. Many college and university campuses have switched to a cafeteria-style service option to eliminate shared serving utensils.

Most students and parents also expect campus dining services to take other COVID-19 precautions, such as requiring masks to be worn indoors and enforcing social distancing. To allow for proper social distancing — at least 6 feet between students — many dining halls may have to institute a new capacity limit. Other measures may include adjusted seating arrangements, floor decals and signage to indicate traffic flows and queueing areas.

Best Practices for College & University Dining Services

Best Practices for College & University Dining Services

The campus dining changes brought on by the pandemic, such as limited indoor seating, make it more challenging to ensure each student has the opportunity to receive their meals. To safely serve as many students as possible, college and university dining service coordinators should focus on expanding access to campus dining services, eliminating barriers to acquiring fresh meals, ensuring food safety and clearly communicating with the student body. 

Because each campus has its own unique circumstances and resources available, some approaches will suit certain campuses better. Each college and university leader will need to figure out which methods best enable them to keep their students healthy and well-fed.

Check out the best campus dining safety procedures below to determine which practices would be most practical for your institution to adopt.

Expanding Access

To ensure as many students have access to campus dining services as possible, college and university leaders should consider these practices:

  • Extend the pickup period: Make sure the pickup window for campus meals is long enough that students have enough time to retrieve their meals regardless of their class schedule or extracurricular commitments. Giving students a longer pickup period will make it easier for more students to access on-campus dining options and reinforce social distancing by spacing out when students arrive for pickup.
  • Map out meal sites strategically: Setting meal pickup sites around campus at centrally located places will make it more convenient for students to get their meals. Instead of having one main pickup site that might be out of the way for some students living in certain dorms or taking certain classes, try to have multiple sites near high-traffic spaces on campus.
  • Continue serving meals over breaks: Especially with fewer students traveling for spring break this year, college and university dining services need to keep offering meals during breaks. By providing meals over breaks, college and university officials can make sure there is no disruption in meal service and every student continues to have access to healthy meals.
  • Provide meals on the weekend: Colleges and universities should provide students with meals on the weekend so students don’t have to worry about finding or preparing food. Students who lack access to transportation, in particular, rely on their campus dining services to provide weekend meals.
  • Offer child care for food service workers: Taking extra measures like extending pickup periods will extend campus food service workers’ hours, as well. Providing these front-line workers with places where their children are safely cared for will allow them to serve more meals without worrying about child care.

Eliminating Barriers

Eliminating Barriers

Along with making meal pickups more accessible overall, there are some specific on-campus dining barriers you should eliminate for all students to have food security. Follow these suggestions to remove unnecessary meal service barriers:

  • Offer meal delivery services: For students who are unable to make it to pickup sites, offer a delivery service that will take meals directly to their dorms. Direct delivery is a great option for any students who are sick, live with someone who is sick or lack access to transportation.
  • Serve multiple meals simultaneously: Consider offering to-go options for every meal of the day all day to accommodate more students’ schedules. Serving multiple meals at a time will let students who might not be able to pick up breakfast because of back-to-back morning classes grab their breakfast the night before.
  • Encourage mobile app orders: Cut down on long lines and a potential increase of close interactions at pickup stations by allowing mobile app orders. Students can order food before showing up at the pickup location so they can skip the line. Pre-ordering can also help students with tight schedules coordinate their pickup timing more easily.
  • Be lenient about student identification: Although student identification may still be required to pick up meals, college and university food service employees should try to be laxer about the rule. Ensuring healthy food for college students should be a priority right now, so occasionally allowing a student who forgets their ID to pick up a meal is understandable.

Ensuring Safety

Food safety is a top priority among college and university food service administrators. Here are a few strategies for promoting food safety on campus and protecting students’ health:

  • Establish clear food safety procedures: Practicing general food safety will help prevent the transmission of any foodborne illnesses. All college and university dining service workers should be thoroughly trained in basic food safety procedures for both preparing and serving meals.
  • Set up meal pickup sites outdoors: To encourage social distancing and minimize the number of people inside campus dining centers, set up tents outside to serve as on-foot meal pickup sites. For students driving to get their food, offer a curbside pickup option to eliminate the need for them to enter the dining center.
  • Form safety procedures that protect staff members: Make sure there is enough personal protective equipment (PPE) on hand for every dining service worker to be fully protected at all times. Essential PPE includes face coverings and gloves to shield staff members from potential transmission when interacting with students picking up their food.
  • Increase cleaning rotations: Practice strict sanitation procedures and make sure high-touch surfaces get cleaned more frequently. Each shift should involve multiple rounds of deep sanitations.

Communicating With Clarity & Transparency

While taking measures to expand access, eliminate barriers and ensure food safety among campus dining options is essential, you need clear and transparent communication about these new practices for them to go smoothly. Here are ways to make sure everyone is aware of any new campus dining service procedures:

  • Distribute information about campus dining services in multiple languages: Make sure all of the information about on-campus dining services is available in multiple languages to ensure international students are aware of any important changes. Breaking down language barriers will also ensure that all students recognize the on-campus dining resources available to them and how to access them.
  • Take advantage of all available media outlets: Reach a wider audience by using various media outlets to communicate with students. Specifically, posting updates on social media is a great way to reach college and university students. Other avenues of keeping students updated include text messages, emails, pre-recorded calls, television and the campus radio station. Use these communication options to circulate information about meals, service schedules and pickup locations.
  • Use up-to-date information and discuss future plans: When using media outlets to communicate, make sure the information is current. While students are under an excessive amount of stress during these times, clearly communicating how and when to pick up their meals can relieve the significant stressor of what to eat each day. Try to be transparent about potential future changes to campus dining services, as well, so students can plan ahead and adjust accordingly.
  • Publish menus and nutrition information: Be intentional about providing menu details and nutrition information by publishing hard copies and posting the weekly menu online. Include a list of ingredients for each menu item so students have all the information they need about food allergens and vegetarian, vegan, kosher and halal options.
  • Make it clear who the meals are available for: Advertise each category of college student meal plan and who meal pickups are available to so each student knows how many meal pickups they can receive per week. Publicizing this information may help more students realize they qualify for to-go meals.

CDC Recommendations to Follow

In addition to the practical procedures listed above, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has rolled out specific food service guidelines for institutions of higher education. Following these recommendations will help protect student health and safety by helping minimize the spread of COVID-19.

Below are the on-campus food safety practices suggested by the CDC:

  • Avoid self-service options: Limit any self-service station, such as buffet-style food bars, condiment bars and beverage dispensers, and avoid providing any small appliances for communal use, such as toasters and waffle makers.
  • Serve nutritionally balanced meals: Keep serving healthy food for college students by including enough fresh fruit, vegetables and lean protein, which will help students’ immune systems stay strong to fend off illness. Consider individually plating or pre-packaging these meals to make them easier to take to go.
  • Have handwashing stations: Provide accessible soap and water for handwashing at all campus dining centers. If you cannot provide soap and water in certain areas, offer hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
  • Discourage sharing food: Discourage students from sharing food regardless of whether the food was brought from home or received from campus dining services.
  • Offer grab-and-go options: Prioritize grab-and-go meals and encourage students to opt for takeout. If using communal dining areas, make sure students practice proper social distancing by placing visual cues 6 feet apart. 
  • Provide outdoor seating: If possible, create outdoor seating opportunities for students while maintaining social distance. Clean and disinfect the tables after each use.
  • Use disposable utensils: Cut down on shared items by providing students with disposable utensils. If using disposable items is not feasible, make sure that all reusable items are handled with gloves and washed in hot water with dish soap.
  • Pre-package food for events: If the school is offering food at any event, provide pre-packaged bags or boxes of food for each attendee instead of serving food as a buffet or family-style.
  • Focus on touchless payment methods: When possible, set up touchless payment methods that allow students to purchase their food without touching money, a card or a keypad. If touchless payment options are not possible, offer at least 60% alcohol hand sanitizer near pay areas so students can immediately sanitize their hands after touching money, cards or keypads.

Remember to Be Flexible

Flexibility is key for college and university food safety. Especially during these times, campus leaders must be able to adapt quickly to new information and changing protocols. Because no one can predict a COVID-19 outbreak, campus food policies need to be easily modified to accommodate various circumstances.

For example, certain states have stricter restrictions for on-premise dining that colleges and universities have to work around. Campuses in these states may benefit from offering more to-go dining options and setting up more outdoor dining areas near the dining center or residence halls.

Providing more seating for outdoor dining can help college and university dining services preserve more of the social aspect of on-campus dining. The top priority of campus dining coordinators should always be to keep students safe. But they should also keep in mind how important communal dining is for college students’ social development and try to incorporate opportunities for group dining while social distancing.

Offering more outdoor dining will require college and university dining services to again be flexible. Because outdoor dining is weather-dependent, food service workers will need to be prepared for sudden shifts in plans, such as an increase of to-go orders when it starts to rain. By staying flexible and keeping packaging supplies on hand, food service employees can adapt to a variety of circumstances.

Contact American Dining Creations About Your Campus Dining Options

If you’re searching for a high-quality, reliable dining partner to provide your college campus with safe, healthy and delicious meals, consider higher education dining solutions from American Dining Creations. American Dining Creations sets itself apart from other college food service companies by being both a hospitality and culinary company.

As a caring and accommodating hospitality partner, we allow you to customize your dining plans to suit your campus COVID-19 protocols. As an experienced culinary company, we provide your campus with fresh, innovative and nutritious dining options.

To learn more about how you can keep safely serving the students on your campus, contact American Dining Creations today.

Contact American Dining Creations About Your Campus Dining Options