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.
So Ms. Vuksta, Furman’s director of auxiliary services, has added two grab-and-go meal stations (one that can accommodate 60 students per hour and another that can handle 180). She also plans a pop-up restaurant outside the main library that will serve street food from around the world, for students and especially staff and faculty, who as a safety precaution will not be allowed to visit the main dining hall.
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.
At Furman, where students will return to campus for the fall semester on Aug. 18, Ms. Vuksta plans to offer insulated, reusable grocery bags so students can carry out multiple to-go meals, and is considering adding picnic tables for outdoor eating.
But the only thing that is sure is that plans will change. “You’re trying to read a crystal ball and the fact is no one knows how this is going to pan out,” she said. “It can be stressful.”
At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Garett DiStefano, the director of dining services, is bracing for what is surely the strangest-ever back-to-school. On June 29, the university announced that nearly all classes will be held virtually, though students may return to live on campus if they choose.
For those who return, dining halls and food courts will continue to offer dishes for students on special diets. But customization is expected to be a victim of the coronavirus. Salad bars will have fewer choices to keep the lines moving. At the make-your-own ramen station, bowls will be premade.
Mr. DiStefano emphasized that while the biggest changes will be seen in traditional dining halls, they are only one part of the college food experience. For example, the university operates two food trucks and a mobile kitchen, from which it serves favorites like burgers and grilled cheese. He plans to expand those menus and create additional options, like a falafel bar, served under a tent outdoors.
“There are things we can do that are quick and fun and still create an experience, but in a different, safe way,” he said.
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.
At Rice, those numbers have been cut in half to allow for social distancing. Sodexo, the food service giant that operates at some 600 campuses in the United States, has created a training module called the Six Foot Kitchen, which provides guidance on how to create safe kitchen environments — everything from tape marks on the floor to mark safe distances, to protocols for accepting deliveries and managing storage.
Sodexo is also turning to technology for help. At two of the universities it works with, the company has robots ready to deliver food to students outside dining halls and food courts.
George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va., is one of those schools. When its 36,000 students head back to school on Aug. 24, Sodexo will have 43 robots — essentially high-tech coolers on wheels — 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.
Last fall, Sodexo filled more than 25,000 orders this way at George Mason. Jeff McKinley, a Sodexo district manager who works with the school, expects that number to grow as the robots eliminate the need for students to enter a busy food court. “Robots are definitely part of our safe reopening plan,” he said.
Bon Appétit Management Company, a food service firm operating at more than 100 campuses, including Furman, Reed College in Portland, Ore., the University of Chicago and M.I.T., is also using robots, but in the kitchen.
Before the pandemic, Bon Appétit had installed robots on campuses across the country, including Blendid robots to make custom smoothies; “Sally,” a robot that whips up made-to-order salads; and a so-called pizza A.T.M., which can serve up a hot pie in three minutes. But what was seen as fun and futuristic, a spokeswoman for the company said, is now being looked at as a way to reduce pressure on employees who will be busier than ever with additional serving duties and constant cleaning.
Maisie Ganzler, Bon Appétit’s chief strategy and brand officer, has been overseeing these transitions since campuses shut down in March. Her first task was to become an expert in various types of personal protective equipment, and where to obtain them. She has spent the last few months investigating new types of equipment, such as no-touch coffee urns, and all manner of sustainable packaging.
Ms. Ganzler said the physical and safety changes are the easier parts of the shift. “There’s nothing magical about putting food into a portioned cup. What we can’t lose sight of is the fundamental thing that food delivers on college campuses,” she said. “It’s part of ‘adulting,’ where kids learn to make their own food choices or express their identity through food. How we achieve all that within the restrictions is a more interesting question than whether you will have prewrapped silverware.”
To that end, Bon Appétit dining managers are continuing to emphasize hospitality — signs at service stations read “Allow us to serve you,” rather than an alternative such as “No mask. No Service” — and offering online programming. Butler University in Indianapolis has devised food trivia contests, and at Washington University in St. Louis, a chef has offered virtual cooking demos for dishes like mushroom risotto.
Ethan Hodge, a 21-year-old Asian studies major at Furman, has already seen several iterations of what college food might look like in the age of the coronavirus. Unlike most students, Mr. Hodge did not leave campus this spring because his family is homeless and his college apartment was the safest place for him to be.
For the first few weeks, he and the roughly 80 other students remaining picked up prepared meals at the dining hall. As numbers dwindled, the kitchen began delivering reheatable meals and meal kits, complete with detailed instructions. By June, dining services had switched it up again, allowing Mr. Hodge and other students to order groceries from an online list so they could cook themselves.
“It was by far the best decision they could have made to keep us safe and keep us healthy,” Mr. Hodge said. “A busy dining hall is something the Furman community is going to miss. It’s what makes us able to meet people from other places and learn about them. It’s the whole liberal arts experience.
“I know dining services is going to do what’s best,” he added. “It’s the students being safe that I’m worried about.”