For undergraduate students living on campus, a big part of social life is running into friends around campus and grabbing a meal together. If nothing else is open, dining halls are the failsafe. But this semester, spontaneous meals have become difficult and rare, if not taboo.
With COVID-19 restrictions, university dining halls are dealing with a decrease in customers and more students in isolation.
Derrick Cripps, the senior director of dining services at the University of North Texas, joined the Mean Green family in January for the start of the spring semester. His inopportune timing meant he had to adjust to a new place and a new world.
Cripps only enjoyed six weeks of normalcy before the responsibility of ensuring the safety of students and workers in the dining halls fell on his shoulders.
UNT’s consideration of international students and students with at-risk family members allowed students to stay on campus throughout spring and summer. Essential workers such as Cripps had very little time to plan and implement these changes.
From arranging socially distant seating to covering every single doorknob in antibacterial films, all five dining halls went through major transformations, and the dining halls have since tweaked their normal operating hours to close for daily deep cleans. UNT also changed its previous policy of not allowing food to be carried outside and began supplying takeout boxes for meals.
As a result of college campuses adjusting to takeout, there has been a huge increase in the number of disposable containers and utensils being used by colleges, so much so that both Southern Methodist University and UNT staff say they have worried about a stable supply of them.
Dining in this pandemic demands exhaustive planning, even beyond the scope of CDC guidelines.
For example: “the different styles of floor stickers we have gone through that can withstand all the floor scrubbing,” Cripps says.
As for supplying meals to students in isolation, that has been an effort of experimenting.
Dining services at both UNT and Southern Methodist University deliver three meals during the afternoon: that night’s dinner and the rest to be microwaved for the next day’s breakfast and lunch.
UNT initially offered a limited menu for the students to order from. However, as the number of positive cases among people on campus increased, they couldn't keep up. Now, UNT and SMU only refer to food allergies and travel time when they plan their set menus.
SMU has partnered with Grubhub to minimize the amount of time students spend in dining locations, especially those who are self-quarantining. Students can use the app to order from the dining halls, as well as retail locations, ahead of time.
Inside the dining hall, students can no longer serve themselves. So either the dining staff spends more time on the counter and gets less time to cook, or some food stations close early.
According to Cripps, the most difficult part of this fall semester has been going from producing huge amounts of food to entertaining a much smaller customer base.
“Serving and interacting with fewer people has brought down the morale of the team, and I had to help them refocus on keeping things as normal as possible. We have special meals, like cuisines from different [countries] all around the world,” Cripps says.
Gradually, this problem may resolve itself: While students initially felt too scared to dine-in, the need for a sense of belonging has brought them back. Now that students have formed their social bubbles, they feel comfortable dining with a consistent group of friends.
“Dining halls are your home away from home: You grab a coffee and break bread together,” Cripps says.
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