The Clark campus has settled into the routines and rhythms that have been altered by the pandemic. Classes are conducted from behind protective masks. People move with attentiveness to their distance from each other. A stop inside the Kneller Center these days means you’re swabbing your nose instead of shooting hoops.
Feeding the campus community has posed a particular challenge in the age of COVID-19: How can Clark serve hundreds of meals a day efficiently and safely while giving people tasty choices and accommodating special dietary needs?
According to Michael Newmark, general manager for Clark Dining Services with Sodexo, the University has arrived at a creative solution — several of them, in fact. Food is served takeout-style, cleaning regimens in dining and service areas have been enhanced, and alternative spaces on campus are used for dining.
“We’ve been planning this since March,” he says. “Because of the state’s restrictions, we couldn’t offer the same program we did last year. But we’re working hard to provide a nice dining experience under our new conditions.”
Some things to know about Clark dining in Fall 2020:
To meet Massachusetts COVID-19 guidelines and protocols for food-service operations, Dining Services made the decision to close five of its serving stations in the Higgins Café, the main dining hall. Most of these were cook-to-order stations, which create crowding in the serving area — both from diners waiting for their meals and workers preparing and serving them.
Clark continues to maintain five serving stations, including those serving vegan, allergen-free, and kosher meals. More choices are now being offered at the other dining locations on campus: The Bistro, Jazzman’s, and The Den. Unlike in past years, students on the meal plan can now “swap” meals from the dining hall to Jazzman’s and The Den (swaps have always been accepted at The Bistro). Dining Services has expanded its offerings at these locations, introducing sandwiches, salads, and other grab-and-go options.
“We erred on the side of caution,” says Paul Wykes, chief university budget officer, who serves on a committee of administrators and students who meet frequently to evaluate dining operations. “At some point, maybe we can add some options back at Higgins.”
A comment board has been set up inside the dining hall to glean student feedback. “We ask that students be as specific as possible with their feedback,” Wykes says. “We take this input very seriously and will post responses.”
The traffic flow through the Higgins Café has been redesigned to keep diners moving in a single direction as speedily as possible while maintaining the proper social distancing. Because of this, it’s not possible for a student to return for seconds, which would add to crowding in the serving area and promote lingering in the dining hall, where seating is limited.
In response, Dining Services has instituted the Double It Up! program that allows students to ask for double portions as they move through the line. Newmark notes that students can be served as much food as they wish at multiple stations — salad, pizza, and a kosher meal, for instance. Standard serving portion sizes align with the posted nutritional information stated on the menu.
“I talked to many students and parents in advance of the semester regarding special diets, and I continue to do so,” Newmark says. “We are always ready and willing to deal with food intolerances, allergy restrictions, etc.”
Students with special dietary needs can email Newmark directly so that accommodations can be made.
Newmark notes that the Simple Servings station provides choices for those with food allergies or gluten intolerance. Simple Servings excludes milk, eggs, wheat, soy, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, and gluten from its menus, which change at each meal period.
With the reduction of seating capacity in the Higgins Café, Clark added seating in Tilton Hall, one flight up from Higgins in the University Center, and on the Wetzel Terrace, just outside of Tilton. A tent also has been set up outside the University Center for additional dining.
“All the seating meets the state’s guidelines for social distancing in restaurants,” Newmark says. “And since our meals are packaged to go, you have your choice of where to eat.”