Point of View

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Earning the Grade in Student Food Services

Within the competitive climate at today’s colleges and universities, the quality of dining services can be a competitive advantage. Prospective students take food into consideration today when making college decisions. “For some prospective students, the dining experience can be a deal breaker when selecting an alma mater,” according to CollegeRank.

SShaheen Steve ShaheenGaining a strong dining services reputation, however, has become much more complex. Gone are the days when gaining the freshman 15 because of carb-heavy food options in the dining hall was acceptable. Today’s students want healthier choices, greater variety and a better dining experience.

While meeting these needs has been a challenge for university foodservice managers, the pandemic added a whole new level of complexity. As long as college campuses were open, it was essential to feed the students and faculty who depend on them for dining services. Yet, as restaurants and foodservice providers everywhere experienced, it can be next to impossible to serve students in dining halls while maintaining social distancing and cleaning protocols. Many students choose to forgo the dining hall, instead choosing to eat snacks and ready-made foods in their dorm rooms. This not only impacts healthy eating, but it also creates even greater isolation, and all the problems associated with that.

Other challenges of student dining services abound, from supply chain shortages to skeleton crews of foodservice workers. Because of these challenges, new requirements will emerge and remain long after the pandemic. Students will demand new dining hall configurations that enable safe distancing, outdoor options and limited exposure to high-touch areas. They’ll also require greater visibility into food preparation.

Instead of forcing students to come to the dining hall, many universities now bring the dining hall to the students. Mobile-powered food stations and food trucks equipped with full heating and refrigeration capabilities can cook real meals on-site. Colleges set these up in front of residence halls and popular outdoor locations to provide safer options to indoor eating and transparency in meal preparation.

One university in New England started using powered food carts during the early days of the pandemic to boost student satisfaction and maintain a sense of community. The campus tried using 8-foot tables as pop-up food stations at residential halls but were limited in what they could offer and constrained by extension cords for power. Once they brought in mobile, battery-powered foodservice carts, they were able to offer ice cream sundae bars, milk-and-cookie nights, blended drinks, and other offerings. They grew student satisfaction by 4% at a time when many universities were seeing decreased student satisfaction in the double digits.

Other ways that colleges and universities are getting creative and reimagining traditional dining services include advanced ordering, minimized touchpoints in the dining hall and offering healthier made-to-order options.

The pandemic enabled colleges and universities to reimagine the traditional dining services model. It no longer has to be only a stationary edifice but can instead be a place of refreshment and community whenever and wherever needed on campus.

By Steve Shaheen, CEO, Co-Founder, DTG

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