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Notre Dame Campus Dining pivots during pandemic

| Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Notre Dame’s campus life underwent many changes this semester. Perhaps one of the most drastic transitions to have taken place is in the dining halls.

“We have changed our dining distribution model to a takeout model,” said Chris Abayasinghe, senior director of Campus Dining. “Students come into the dining halls, they pick through the variety of options and then they gather their meals to go.”

Senior Erin Herbert described the takeout model as “way different.”

“The changes have definitely been a big adjustment, especially since the last three years were like buffet-style and having takeout now,” Herbert said.

Director of student dining Luigi Alberganti said the changes were a necessity.

“This is an observation of current state mandates,” Alberganti said. “[These mandates] don’t allow us to feed the students in the same place where we prepare the food.”

Abayasinghe acknowledges that from the way the dining halls flow to the times and options of meals, there are big changes across the board. Options now include convenient grab-and-go items, prepackaged salads, a pan-Asian station, homestyle meals and a grill line open for both lunch and dinner.

Abayasinghe said he is excited about new options that accommodate students with food allergies or dietary restrictions.

“Additionally, we have a pickup area for gluten-free meals, as well as vegan-friendly or even allergen-requirement meals, which we do in conjunction with our nutritionist,” Abayasinghe said.

Given that the dining halls serve over 8,000 undergraduates, there were some difficulties early in this process of changing how the dining halls would look and operate this semester.

Herbert noted the first week of dining was difficult but said she thinks the situation is looking up.

“The first week, the dining hall was still adjusting. And so it was kind of new for all of us,” Herbert said. “I feel like this week it’s starting to improve for the better.”

Abayasinghe said the dining halls are greatly improving in both safety and efficiency.

“We needed to improve our service speed to effectively make sure we have speed of service and also ensure that we can maintain physical distance, and over the last week or so, we were able to really improve upon that speed of service,” Abayasinghe said. “We’re enforcing physical distancing protocols, ensuring that both our staff and our guests have personal protective equipment on when they’re in the spaces and also some significantly enhanced cleaning and disinfection of the spaces in between meal periods.”

Sophomore Abe Akey said he noticed the improvement in safety and overall quality of experience.

“The first few days when I was on campus, the lines were quite large, to say the least,” Akey said. “It didn’t seem like people were socially distancing, but they’ve really cracked down on that now, … and they have the people there supervising the lines inside now. I feel like that’s a good solution.”

Abayasinghe said campus dining is committed to the continued improvement and quality of the dining halls based on student feedback.

“We hear from our students as well as from our own taste panels that we’re running to ensure the food meets the level of quality we’re looking for,” Abayasinghe said. “We’re looking at continued convenience for our students so that way we can help them get in and out of the dining hall as efficiently as possible. And also balancing that with what their nutritional intake needs are.”

Abayasinghe said that campus dining is looking to make more improvements in the near future such as increased environmentally friendly products in the dining halls and the introduction of more nutritious food.

“You might have noticed that a week ago we transition[ed] to compostable takeout containers,” Abayasinghe said. “We’re meeting with colleagues at the Office of Sustainability, … and then also with the student government executive officers by the end of the week just to kind of talk through what I’ve learned and what the additional steps we wish to take.”

In regard to feedback on supplying more nutritious food, Alberganti said the current focus is on increasing the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables.

“I think we made some strides this week with the availability of the product, but I look forward in the next coming days, making that more visible in the dining halls and more available for all the students,” Alberganti said.

Abayasinghe also addressed a highly-discussed issue of the dining halls at the beginning of this semester — the lack of Southwest Salad, an extremely popular meal among students.

“One of the favorites here at Notre Dame is the Southwest Salad,” Abayasinghe said. “We have heard great feedback from our students, and we’re looking at being able to reintroduce that into the system as well.”

The Southwest Salad was made available for the first time Thursday.

Following University President Fr. John Jenkin’s Aug. 18 announcement implementing two weeks of online school in hopes to flatten the curve, there have been a couple of dining hall modifications, Abayasinghe said.

“We ended up relocating staff from the closed retail units to help support the additional demand we anticipated at LaFortune as well as at both the dining halls,” Abayasinghe said. “What you might have also seen is just additional enforcement of physical distancing rules; you might have seen an increased presence of the HERE ambassadors throughout the dining halls as well just to help us control flow.”

Looking outside the dining halls to the tents, Abayasinghe said there have been some adjustments to the staffing and sanitization procedures.

“We saw further densification of seating in [the tents], to ensure that we had the appropriate number of people physically distancing there, and you would have also seen an enhanced sanitized cleaning and disinfection routine by our staff as well as just further presence of our colleagues from the HERE ambassador program,” Abayasinghe said.

Abayasinghe remarked that his staff has adapted quickly and the dining halls, as a whole, are continuing to expand and offer more options.

“We have pivoted with this pause in class instruction and continuing to improve and enhance upon the menu offerings for our students through this period,” Abayasinghe said. “And I’m incredibly proud of my staff.”

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