Dining in the age of COVID-19: A call for student engagement

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As the food sustainability intern for the Zilkha Center this summer, my work has involved researching the College’s current commitments to food sustainability and potential future ones in this time where food sustainability might look very different. I was happy to see throughout my work and my meetings with Dining Services staff that food sustainability continues to be a big priority — the College is continuing its work with the Real Food Challenge to increase the amount of “real” food being served, and I am now working to have the College join the Cool Food Pledge to focus on reducing the amount of carbon emissions produced by our food purchases. However, sourcing issues aside, I believe that two of the biggest sustainability challenges of this semester will be the correct usage of the College’s newly purchased reusable food containers and proper composting in dorms and other College buildings. 

With approximately 1,455 students returning to campus this fall, Dining Services has worked hard to plan a new carry-out dining system to fit the needs of the COVID-19 age. Mission Park, instead of operating as a dining hall, is being used as a production kitchen for Fresh-n-Go meals (previously called Grab-n-Go). This allows Mission to house newly-purchased food processing equipment that gives Dining the ability to process more fresh food on-site instead of purchasing pre-cut produce. This both increases the availability of fresh produce in meals, and allows Dining to save money as buying pre-cut produce is more expensive. Despite the difficulties of operating during the pandemic, sourcing sustainable food is still a priority for dining services, and students can expect to see meals and ingredients similar to previous years. 

Besides no eat-in dining, other changes include the reusable containers that all food on campus will be served in (with the exception of single-use compostable cups and utensils) and the removal of self-service beverage stations, resulting in all cold drinks being served in cans or plastic bottles. While the College was initially looking to exclusively use single-use compostables, I was happy that Dining and Administration came to the decision that if used properly, a reusable food container system will be much more sustainable with the thousands of meals served each year. However, it’s too early to celebrate. The rollout of the reusable clamshells two years ago struggled to gain traction, and with the College giving reusables a second chance, I implore students to make sure they return their containers to one of the many collection bins that will be placed around campus to increase convenience and return rates and ensure the longevity of this initiative. In order to make sure that the food waste and compostable containers that will be leaving the dining halls in record numbers this fall will be composted, the College plans to increase the number of compost bins to solve previous years’ issues with compost bin availability, and will have them placed by collection bins for the reusables so students can dump excess food waste and properly dispose of compostable to-go ware. Moreover, Snack Bar, ’82 Grill and Fresh-n-Go now only function with mobile ordering. Director of Dining Temesgen Araya said that he anticipates that this shift will reduce food waste at Fresh-n-Go as they will no longer over-produce lunches and all sandwiches will be made to order.

While the College tries to prioritize sustainability in a time where students are bound to use packaging more than ever before, it would be remiss not to acknowledge that there will be institutional shortcomings and room for growth that emphasize the continued need for sustainability advocacy. I think it is important to rally the student body to buy into the College’s initiatives, and for students to make good on the investments of the College into reusable containers, compostable cups and cutlery and collection and compost bins. Students need to properly use these systems in order to justify the effort and expense put into them by Dining Services, Facilities and Administration. A minimal time/energy investment from their part both ensures the success of the program and supports future sustainability initiatives. 

Staffing during the pandemic also presents a challenge — many vulnerable staff members will be shifted to work in the Mission production kitchen to reduce exposure to others, resulting in staffing shortages in other dining locations. In response to this, dining hours for several locations have been shifted. Gone are the days of a 1 a.m. egg muffin. Snack Bar only provides lunch and mid-day meal, and Snack Bar Late Night is closed. Students have been provided with a MicroFridge and microwave unit in their rooms to store extra snacks, and while the fridges are Energy-Star rated, using less power than a normal mini-fridge, having every on-campus student own one is an additional environmental burden. It would be helpful if students unplugged unused fridges, or shared one with a podmate. In addition, Williams Recovery of All Perishable Surplus (WRAPS) typically operates by packaging the surplus food from dining halls and delivering them to community members/institutions in need. With the new challenges that coronavirus presents, WRAPS will be taking the month of September to figure out how they can continue their relationship with Dining Services. However, they are committed to continuing to serve the needs of community members that rely on them, even if this year their work might look different. 

In summary, sustainability and its issues will take on a new form this fall, and while I’m glad that the College is stepping up, I also hope that students will rise up to the challenge and continue to prioritize sustainable living. 

Maria Tews ’23 is from Sunny Isles Beach, Fla.