COVID-19 and Back-to-School Dining

Written by Barbara Smolek, MPA, Hillary Minkoff, BS, and Maya Dalack, BS.

Remote, in-person, hybrid…there is a whole new vocabulary for back to school season 2020!

The excitement and anxiety that come with the start of the school year have taken a new form in the age of COVID. Schools are wrestling with the safest and most effective ways to reopen this fall. Students and their families are being forced to weigh multiple variables and make difficult decisions.

At residential colleges and universities (and on a smaller scale, high schools), the opportunity to be away from home is usually a time of freedom and exploration. These rites of passage look different this year based on new and ever-changing guidelines imposed by each school. In addition to classes, campus life, in all its forms, is also different this year. Large group gatherings are banned and living and dining situations are being modified in various ways.

In 2020, preparation and flexibility – two essential components of eating disorder recovery – are more important than ever before. The first step in this process is to consider what support you or your loved one might need, which means taking into consideration the limitations/changes that will be implemented at school. Here is a sampler from schools that have posted their back to school guidelines, which provides a general overview of what to expect.

And here are some specific examples of how dining halls and food services are being impacted:

  • Some schools are offering takeout only and eliminate dining room options. For example, Emory University will add outdoor seating throughout campus and self-serve stations will be eliminated. All food will be either grab-and-go or served by trained, uniformed staff wearing personal protective equipment and following strict safety guidelines. Dining will offer mobile ordering for pick-up only at locations where it is possible and practical.
  • Similarly, Columbia University is starting the year with takeout only. Options will include traditional hot and cold foods, as well as an enhanced selection of prepared grab-and-go items. They may introduce additional “markets” that will allow students to choose from a variety of hot and cold food options while on the go. As state guidance and public health protocols allow, the dining halls will eventually be equipped with very limited seating to ensure everyone’s safety while implementing social-distancing protocols.
  • Washington University is staffing its dining halls with Hospitality Coordinators. The Hospitality Coordinator will monitor dining to ensure safe occupancy levels and make sure everyone has a face mask when entering. This person can also help if you are not sure where to go or what to eat. They are trained to assist students and make sure their dining experience is as smooth as possible.
  • Schools are following industry-recognized food safety practices designed to keep students and staff safe. At the University of Michigan, dining surfaces will be sanitized regularly, and staff are required to undergo a daily screening for symptoms of COVID-19. Additionally, dining hall employees need to complete a university COVID-19 training as well as a COVID-19 food safety training via the National Restaurant Association. Dining halls will utilize plexiglass barriers between customers and staff and face coverings will be required at all times in dining facilities.

Here are some questions to ask yourself or your loved one and potentially discuss with a current or past treatment provider who knows your circumstances well:

  • Will eating alone in your apartment or dorm room help or detract from your goals? If you are alone, how can you avoid patterns that might not be healthy?
  • Can you find a friend/support person to keep you accountable? Might you use Zoom or another platform to fill in for in-person opportunities to eat with someone? Can you coordinate with a friend to eat together if your schedules align?
  • Would it be helpful to plan and order your meals in advance?
  • Are grab-and-go portions adequate for your needs, or might you need to supplement meals with additional items?

And then, how will you handle this new normal?

  1. Know what to expect from your school. Read the emails and check online, as there are frequent updates based on state guidelines or recent incidents.
  2. Continue to make self-care a priority! Try to make sleep, relaxation, nourishment, and appropriate exercise or outdoors time a regular part of your routine.
  3. Coordinate Zoom (or its counterparts) hangouts with your friends to share a virtual meal if you can’t dine with someone you rely on in person.
  4. Arrange to meet friends in a safe, socially distanced, setting, even if it can’t be in the dining hall.
  5. Consider that others around you-in your dorm, on the steps of a building, on a grassy knoll- may be struggling in some way as well. It is not uncommon to feel lonely or anxious being newly away from home. Recognize that you are not the only one facing challenges.
  6. If you are eating meals at home, whether it’s off-campus housing or a dorm room, be mindful of potential triggers and set a plan to make meals a priority.

Some of what we’ve written previously, both pre- and mid-pandemic, may be a helpful guide for those with additional concerns about maintaining healthy eating:

Here’s to a healthy albeit unique fall semester! We wish you well as you help trailblaze this new experience.

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  1. Really informative read, Barbara! You need to pay attention to your kid’s diet as they need proper nutrition to stay healthy and strong. It will also help establish a foundation for healthy eating habits and your kids can apply this nutritional knowledge throughout their lives.

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