College reopenings: How will meals be served?

Mealtime will look very different for many students returning to college campuses in the fall, according to The New York Times. Gone are the self-serve salad stations and communal condiments in dining halls; in their place are plexiglass barriers, where masked and gloved workers will serve nearly everything to students.

Other proposed solutions to limit virus spread: pop-up outdoor restaurants, picnic table seating and food deliveries by robots

By Becky Vuksta’s calculations, the new socially distanced dining-hall setup at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., will serve 12 students a minute, or 720 students per hour. Not bad, but still not fast enough to feed the school’s 2,700 students in the rush between classes.

The number of students that can be served per minute is not a normal concern for college and university dining administrators, who in recent years have tried to distinguish themselves on the quality and variety of their food, and the sense of community that it can bring to a campus. Over the last decade, the food served in college cafeterias has transformed from the butt of jokes into a major perk; the dining hall is often the first stop on campus tours.

Because of the coronavirus, however, nothing about this year is going to be normal. At campuses across the country, self-serve stations, where students can make their own salads or taco bowls, will be eliminated; instead, masked-and-gloved workers, shielded by plexiglass barriers, will serve nearly everything. Gone, too, will be condiment and coffee stations, replaced by single-serving ketchup and salad-dressing packets and paper cups that many schools were triumphantly phasing out in an effort to reduce waste. Several universities are even using robots prepare food and deliver it.

Things will be different in the kitchen, too. Masks and gloves will be mandatory everywhere, and many schools, including Rice University in Houston, are mandating temperature checks for workers and reducing the number of staff members in the kitchen.

When George Mason University’s 36,000 students head back to school on Aug. 24, 43 robots — essentially high-tech coolers on wheels — will be ready to deliver meals and snacks from Starbucks, Dunkin’ and other brands. Students order via an app, food workers load the order into the robot, then the robot drives itself to the appointed location, whether that’s a dorm or a bench near the library.

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