Safe to dine?: Dining Services navigates on-campus meals during a pandemic

Pencader Dining Hall Coronavirus
Tara Lennon/THE REVIEW
A limited number of students have now moved back to campus for the Fall 2020 semester, and the duty once again falls on Dining Services to provide them with meals.

BY
Associate News Editor

In March of 2020, there were three dining halls operating on campus. Each was consistently bustling with activity, sometimes even fielding lines out the door as students crammed in to grab a bite to eat. Now, only one dining hall remains in operation and is usually mostly empty.

Even after campus shut down for the latter half of the Spring 2020 semester, Dining Services was obliged to provide meals to students who were living on campus and on the university’s dining plan. A limited number of students have now moved back to campus for the Fall 2020 semester, and the duty once again falls on Dining Services to provide them with meals.

The summer provided time for Dining Services to monitor and evaluate the status of coronavirus and to look at Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, university procedures and state policy. They also began utilizing Aramark’s EverSafe program. Aramark is a company that partners with the university to provide food for its dining halls. According to Aramark’s website, EverSafe provides guidelines for “safe reopening and sustainable management” of Aramark locations.

“For this spring, we had to be very reactive, and for the fall we had an opportunity to be proactive,” Amanda Steiner, Dining Services’ vice president of operations, said.

According to Steiner, this proactivity included engaging with students to ensure continuing satisfaction, adapting operations and safety procedures and ensuring employee cooperation and commitment to new policies and regulations.

Because the number of students living on-campus is small, only Pencader Dining Hall is currently in operation. Other on-campus dining options include the Trabant Student Center, the Nest in Morris Library, and the Provisions On Demand (POD) market on North Campus.

Pencader Dining Hall CoronavirusTara Lennon/THE REVIEW
This group of students prepares to eat in Pencader Dining Hall.

Steiner said the university also expanded its partnership with food delivery services GrubHub and Good Uncle, with an option to add these services to a meal plan. The goal in this expansion is for students to not have to be physically present in the university’s dining areas. Even if students must enter the dining facilities in Trabant, GrubHub’s mobile ordering service and the recently installed kiosks limit cashier contact and stop large crowds from forming as students wait for their food.

According to Steiner, the POD on North Campus is the only place where students collect their own items and pay with a cashier system.

Dining Services has also worked to monitor density and traffic in Pencader Dining Hall. The density tracker can be accessed through the Dining Services website. Steiner said that the density tracker is in “real time” to allow students to decide when and where they would like to eat.

Even though Pencader is currently the only dining hall in use, the density tracker was installed in Caesar Rodney and Russell dining halls as well.

Pencader Dining Hall has not seen full capacity so far this semester because of the low campus population, but Steiner sees it as a tool that could be used well into the future to help students “make an educated decision without having to walk all the way across campus.” She also hopes to gain a better understanding of dining hall traffic patterns to “educate students” on peak times.

“It really gave us a better sense of helping the students be able to see where they could dine and what would be open and available,” Stefanie Gilreath, the marketing manager for Dining Services, said. “If we did have to restrict occupancy more, it is definitely a tool that we knew we would use heavily.”

Some students currently living on campus have been monitoring the density tracker to determine when to eat.

Sophomore environmental science major Alexis Cervantes is immunocompromised, and therefore especially susceptible to coronavirus. She does not like to go to the dining hall when it is too crowded.

“I was even scared to go at thirty percent, but I think when I went it was under 10,” Cervantes said.

Sophomore public policy and criminal justice double-major Maggie Buckridge has also paid attention to the density tracker.

“One thing I noticed is that the occupancy that’s outside of the dining hall is definitely not accurate,” Buckridge said.

Buckridge also pointed out other experiences in which she felt that the density tracker seemed inaccurate.

“The other day it said two percent, and I went upstairs,” Buckridge said. “It was pretty empty but I don’t think this was two percent, I mean there were definitely people there.”

Another time, Buckridge said, the density tracker was at zero percent but the dining hall was not empty of students.

Since the spring, self-service has been eliminated, and there has also been a complete division between dine-in and take-out portions of Pencader. According to Steiner, Dining Services made these changes to remove the risk of cross-contamination of containers and to better control occupancy.

Buckridge sees the separation between dine-in and take-out as one of the most significant changes in on-campus dining since the spring.

“I think the difference between dining in and dining out is kind of big, but regardless of if I’m doing dine-in or take-out, it has all been tasting pretty good,” Buckridge said.

Despite being content with the options available to her, Buckridge said that there are limited take-out options available to students who have dietary restrictions.

“I imagine like if you’re vegan or vegetarian, or even if you’re just a picky eater or if you have allergies, it’s probably pretty hard to do take-out just because there are limited options,” Buckridge said. “There always is a vegan option, but it might be like one or two things — so like hummus, for example, and [if] you’re vegan … that’s kind of it.”

Buckridge also pointed out that there are many more options that are available to students when they are dining in.

Although she has only visited the dining hall a few times since arriving on campus, Cervantes also feels that the options are limited as someone who follows a vegan diet. Instead, she looks to Main Street for alternative dining options.

“They just don’t have a lot of options, and then coming from [Caesar Rodney Dining Hall], like, just a whole different world up here because I used to have that entire vegan station,” Cervantes said. “Now, I just feel like my options are super limited.”

Unlike Buckridge, Cervantes prefers the options offered by the take-out section of the dining hall.

“The vegan options that I would have are only in the to-go section, so I don’t mind taking it to-go since I am immunocompromised,” Cervantes said.

Because Dining Services is providing food during a pandemic, they must ensure that they are doing so safely. Mike Diener, the safety director for Dining Services, was hired for this exact purpose.

Diener called hand sanitation a “critical procedure” for the safe functioning of a “food service operation.” He also said that Dining Services has increased the number of hand-washing and sanitizing stations available to students and has put up signage to promote hand hygiene.

According to Diener, Dining Services employees also had to undergo training in hand hygiene procedures and are observed to ensure they are washing their hands, as well as wearing gloves and masks. All employees were tested for coronavirus before returning to work and also undergo daily health screenings.

Gilreath also ensured that Dining Services employees are taking precautions against coronavirus.

“Everyone’s been very committed to doing what we need to do to stay safe, from our management teams through our employees,” Gilreath said. “Everyone’s been very cooperative and have been taking all the precautions that we can.”

Diener said that dining services also reviewed its safety measures with resident assistants, who could then communicate the guidelines with their residents.

Social distancing markers have been placed six feet apart throughout campus, including in Pencader Dining Hall. Diener said that Dining Services works to ensure social distancing by telling students to wait for their food in the dining room, rather than near the line.

Pencader Dining Hall Coronavirus Tara Lennon/THE REVIEW
Dining Services verified that tables are eight feet apart and sanitized when students leave.

Even though masks are required elsewhere on campus, students cannot eat with their masks on. To mitigate this problem, Diener said, tables only allow for six students to sit at a time and are spread eight feet apart. After students leave, tables and chairs are immediately disinfected.

Buckridge said that the students typically follow social distancing guidelines when eating in the dining hall.

“You’re pretty much six feet apart from people when you’re like walking around getting your food, which feels safe,” Buckridge said.

When it comes to seating, however, Buckridge is concerned that the groups of students joining together for meals may be too large.

“I mean, I don’t feel super hopeful with people being able to eat in like groups of like eight people in the dining hall,” Buckridge said.

Buckridge also finds inconsistencies between residence hall policies and dining hall policies. While she cannot go into a residence hall that is not her own, she can still eat with people who live there, potentially spreading coronavirus across residence halls through interactions in the dining hall.

“It sort of makes the Res Life restrictions feel a little obsolete,” Buckridge said. “How meaningful and impactful are those gonna be when you can eat inside with a group of eight people without your mask on, at one table, socially distanced from other tables, but not from the people you’re sitting with?”

Both Diener and Gilreath believe that “awareness is key” to enforcing policies aimed to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

“It’s really [about] educating and communication and making sure that those materials and guidelines are out there, so students know what the expectations are when they’re dining on campus,” Gilreath said.

Both Buckridge and Cervantes believe that there is not enough signage conveying dining hall expectations. Cervantes said that even though there are arrows, there is still some confusion.

“I just don’t want to accidentally go somewhere that I’m not supposed to or grab something I’m not supposed to, but they’re not really telling us what to do,” Cervantes said.

Buckridge is most concerned about students spreading coronavirus by sitting with people whom they are not already in close contact with.

“There’s like no signage; there’s no encouragement or expectation, like it doesn’t say, ‘Oh, eat with people you live with or you know, only eat with people in your building,’ or something,” Buckridge said. “There’s none of that. You can eat with whoever.”

For those looking for more information regarding safety guidelines for returning students, including a list of safe dining rules, please refer to the university’s published campus guidelines here.

Correction: A previous version of this article, published Sept. 10 at 12 noon, introduced and referred to the safety director for Dining Services as “Mike Diner” or “Diner” throughout the piece. This was a misspelling. His last name is spelled “Diener.” This article was updated Sept. 11 at 12 noon to correct this factual error.

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