There are multiple sides to every story. From my student perspective, the dining hall food diminished in the number of options and the overall taste after the pandemic. However, there were tremendous barriers to dining hall operations during both fall and winter semesters, so I wanted to get a closer look at Michigan Dining during COVID-19 and what Michigan Dining Administrators are planning for winter semester operations. I sat down with Steve Giardini, Senior Associate Director of Michigan's Residential Dining, to learn more. 

Pre-Pandemic Dining Halls

For those of you who are unfamiliar with pre-pandemic Michigan dining halls, the dining halls used to be set up walk-in-buffet style, where students could come in anytime during operating hours, grab food from four or five different stations, each with their own focus, and stay as long as they wanted. Sound like a dream? It was.

Hannah Feng

When the pandemic hit, everything changed. The dining staff knew they would have to drastically alter their operations to keep everyone safe and healthy, so they spent the summer brainstorming ideas in a think-tank style. They mapped out everything from dining hall flow to perfecting future menu items, all while unsure of whether students were returning to campus and how many would return.

Dining hall staff didn't find out that students were allowed to return to campus until the week before classes began. Luckily, the team had created several different plans and were able to respond effectively to the news by creating a streamlined, socially-distanced dining hall flow offering to-go meals.

Hannah Feng

How are things different at Michigan Dining during COVID-19? 

Each day, to-go meals are prepared and cooked in the Michigan Union kitchen, then delivered to the to-go station in the Union. Bakery items are made in the Bakeshop at Mary Markley by a Certified Executive Pastry Chef, then delivered to respective dining locations to be served. Hot menu items are planned weeks in advance, ingredients are ordered 7-10 days in advance, prepped 72 hours before serving, then cooked the day of serving. The dining halls serve an average of ten to twelve thousand meals a day, and Giardini estimates that "over 95% of what we make is from scratch". 

Hannah Feng

Any leftover food from Michigan Dining Halls is donated to local food pantries such as Maize and Blue Cupboard, Food Gatherers, and Food Recovery Network to both reduce food waste and give back to the local community. 

What should we expect Winter 2021 Dining Halls to look like? 

In the winter semester, significantly fewer students will return to Michigan Residence halls, only around 3,000 students compared to 5,500 during the fall semester. To accommodate these housing changes, MDining will be closing smaller dining halls such as Twigs at Oxford, Markley, and Martha Cook in partnership with the Housing department. Dining hours at the remaining dining halls will remain similar to last semester, with dining halls open for full service during most of the day. Unfortunately, dine-in will remain closed for the semester due to ongoing COVID related concerns for the health and safety of students and Dining staff. 

Because of the smaller volume of students, MDining will also be taking a more personalized approach to food service in the winter semester, with exciting pre-pandemic customization options such as a build-your-own salad bar and sandwiches made fresh-to-order. Although students won’t get to handle the food themselves for safety reasons, they will have greater control over what goes in their food, a huge victory for those with dietary restrictions, those starting a New Year’s resolution diet, and picky eaters. 

Committed to Sustainability 

Finally, Giardini expressed Michigan Dining's commitment to sustainability. To minimize the environmental impact of dining halls, MDining has been exploring ways to reduce the carbon impact of their menu items, implemented a composting program, and buying as much local produce as possible, including from the Campus Farm, to reduce transportation emissions.

Hannah Feng

Overall, I was surprised by the number of hurdles MDining had to overcome in response to the pandemic and impressed by their commitment to safety, community, and sustainability. This inside look gave me a newfound respect for Michigan Dining Hall staff, especially for their resilience, adaptability, and work ethic. I hope that this behind the scenes look at Michigan Dining also gave you a deeper appreciation for dining hall staff. Be sure to thank your dining hall staff if you see them again next semester!

DISCLAIMER: Photo Credits to Martin Vloet and MDining!