Posted August 21, 2020
The Smith College dining facility was the building I was in as the college administration announced their emergency plans in response to the pandemic on the eve of Spring Break. My cohorts and I shared our last meal of the semester; we cried, hugged, and said goodbye - social norms that now seem like part of the distant past.
For a college student, dining is a central component of the college experience. It is a relaxed environment where students engage, share stories, and form a common bond over food. It is unmistakably the heartbeat of campus. Smith College was one of the 203 campuses in the region that pivoted to remote learning in April. As dorms and other campus buildings emptied, the dining landscape changed dramatically due to COVID-19. To-go containers, plexiglass, and safe distancing signs replaced the once familiar scene of hot trays, buffet bars, and students in close comradery. Behind the scenes, dining directors, dining staff, and janitorial staff collaborated to put these changes in place as smoothly as possible. And now, as colleges further revise plans to reopen, dining operations continue to adapt.
Responding to a Crisis
Farm to Institution New England (FINE) engaged with network partners representing food purchasers and dining operators to better understand the significant shifts in the dining system and supply chains. On March 24th, FINE hosted its first of a COVID-19 forum series. Commented Peter Allison, Executive Director of FINE,
"[We want to] provide an open forum about key issues facing institutional dining operators and other supply chain partners in response to COVID-19 - and where possible, identify action steps that we and others can take."
As a six-state network of nonprofits and public and private entities, FINE's mission is to cultivate a region that moves towards self-reliance by collaborating, networking, and disseminating resources. For example, FINE identified the need for a matchmaking tool to address the New England farm to institution supply chain gaps and surpluses. In response, a form was created for network partners to list their resources and needs in everything for food, cold storage, trucking and distribution, and labor. The matchmaking sheet allocated better use of resources and, most importantly, the surplus food.
Feeding thousands of students across New England requires extensive time and resources. In the 2017-2018 fiscal year, colleges that responded to a FINE survey estimated that spent $398 million on food. Nearly 800,000 students partake in some form of campus dining that amounts to 87 million meals served throughout the region per year. Attending to this level of volume requires advance planning and procurement of ingredients. Food contracts with farmers and food retailers are made months to a year in advance.
However, once students abruptly left campus, staff and dining hall directors were left to contend with thousands of pounds of surplus food. Jeremy Oldfield, Farm Manager at Yale Farm (CT), remarked, "Every week we are working with a local emergency food organization to feed 300 families around New Haven." Numerous colleges and universities moved their surplus food to area food pantries and donation centers in the early weeks of the pandemic. For example, Middlebury College (VT) donated food to homeless shelters from March to June. Bard College (NY) donated surplus food to local emergency food relief efforts. Similarly, UMass Amherst provided provisions to Western Mass Food Bank and Amherst Survival Center. Quinnipiac University (CT) donated 3000 pounds of frozen or perishable foods recovered from student fridges.
Campus Farms Adapt
Nearly 50 campuses in New England offer farming or gardening as a local food source to dining halls and the community, according to FINE's survey, including campus-based CSA programs for students and employees, allowing for food access beyond the cafeteria.
A few campus farms in New England had to close for the season. With the loss of student labor at the peak of the planting season, Yale Farm had to suspend operations but hopes to have students and the public back soon. Sprout Creek Farm of Marist College (NY) abruptly and permanently closed.
Other campus farm managers are pivoting farm operations from student and faculty consumption and education programs to exploring new or existing markets for their produce. Anna Davis, manager of Beech Hill Farm on College of Atlantic (ME), stated, "We saw a big increase in the CSA and switched to an online store and home delivery as an alternate method to move our products. The biggest learning curve was protecting our staff and creating stricter shopping guidelines to continue the business."
Was there anything positive about this quick pivot in operations?
Davis remarks, "We saw new community members turn to regional food and connect to us who never had before." National food chains were disrupted across the country, especially in the meat and dairy industry. Worker illness rose, and factory shutdown became necessary. Grocery shoppers saw empty grocery shelves week after week. However, in New England, farms, including campus farms, which typically sell to institutions, adapted to a higher volume of direct consumer sales, increasing people's access to healthy food. The pandemic reinforced that relying on a global food chain is risky.
Preparing for the Fall Semester in a Pandemic
How will colleges and universities reopen this fall? There could be up to 15 possible fall scenarios for schools, including in-person classes, hybrid, or fully remote. On the brink of the fall semester, some colleges have not yet finalized their fall plans. Others have announced their plans only to make changes in response to the rising COVID-19 cases. For example, UMass Amherst expected to have 6,000-7,000 students on campus compared to their usual 13,000. However, UMass and several other Massachusetts colleges announced in early August they will be offering a fully remote experience for their student population. Overall, schools expect to have some students on campus, though drastically reduced.
Adaptive practices will play a key role in keeping the on-campus students and staff healthy. Bowdoin College of Maine has limited their dining halls to just two facilities, with take-out as the only option at the start of the semester. Popular in 2019, but trending more now are technology-based "dining on the go" options. Mobile dining apps such as Grubhub, and Boost, and even campus delivery robots are dining alternatives for reducing crowding and maintaining safe distances. Several campuses will pitch outdoor tents as replacement dining halls and provide students with dormitory mini-fridges in anticipation of more takeout-style meals.
Dining services are central to college life, providing high-quality food but also influencing the supply chain. When I asked Andy Cox, dining director of Smith College, how the pandemic will alter the menu, he remarked,
"Not much has changed. We are still focusing on locality and real food. Our aim continues to have staff create recipes centered around student experience."
For many of the stakeholders in the farm to institution network, valuing the regional food supply is a priority that aligns both quality and food reliance.
Farm to Campus: Supporting Local Food Resiliency
Organizations like FINE contribute a fundamental role in empowering institutions to transform our food systems. As we witnessed, even during an emergency shut down, campuses continued to operate, albeit on a smaller scale. Schools are institutional entities that serve as vital anchors in society, providing education, employment, housing, and food. According to FINE's survey, they spend more than 20% of their food budgets on food grown, raised, or harvested in the region totaling $68 million, which is why we rely on them for a diversified and stable market.
So in this global pandemic, is New England more resilient than other regions?
It may be too early to tell. However, I was fortunate to hear anecdotal evidence of food system resilience. Many farmers lost supply outlets due to closed restaurants. Selling to colleges like Smith was one of their few ways to maintain business. Some even sent thank you cards for continuing their purchasing orders. Similarly, Chris Howland, UMass director of purchasing, marketing, and logistics, emphasized that
"We may not be buying in the volume we are accustomed to, but we are continuing to reach out to local farms. They are resilient and adaptable to pivoting and supporting our menu needs as we also adjust. Sometimes I need lettuce one week and chicken the next."
Beech Hill Farm’s Anna Davis felt that [producers], "rose to the occasion and demonstrated the capacity to produce in such a quick shift in operations and saw the strength and resilience. It demonstrated our capacity, and it was a blessing in disguise for our regional food system."
The pandemic has forced us to rethink our critical operations, including FINE's goal of increasing local food procurement in campus dining facilities. Presently, the focus has shifted to supporting and keeping intact the supply chains and structures that connect local farms to markets and people who previously relied on institutions for food. However, the efforts to create a robust food system remains as ever critical as before. A functioning local food system can ensure communities have access to a healthy food supply while reducing valuable waste resources, and supporting the local economy amidst numerous stressors.
What's ahead for colleges and universities?
There are still unanswered questions for the short-term and long term future around food security and access, equity, markets, and school operations. However, FINE is committed to supporting the farm to the campus network which will lead us toward a more self-reliant food system now and in the future.
At Smith, the dining experience was a key selling point to students who embraced the transparency over where their food was coming from and how it was prepared. Like myself, students were thrilled to take part in healthy, sustainable eating. New difficulties lie ahead, but we must remember the collaboration and achievements within our food system before the COVID-19 pandemic. Let us continue to progress further in the institutional confidence that we can achieve a robust regional food system, ensuring access and viability far after the pandemic.
For me, my fall semester will look drastically different this year as Smith College made the difficult decision to have a fully remote semester. Lunch between classes will be made with my fresh veggies from the garden- a successful quarantine project! Lunch dates will be with the cat in the kitchen, or over Zoom with a friend, as we sip coffee and talk about how weird our new reality is. Regardless, we all will be learning and adapting to a virtual experience together.
I invite you to share your stories of the strength in our regional food system at [email protected]
Please join FINE’s next COVID-19 Open Forum on September 17, 2020, to discuss the future of farm to institution. Topics will explore how institutions adapt to the new normal and continue to serve as anchors in our communities and powerful agents of change in our food system.
Britney Danials, author, is currently the Communications Intern at FINE and a student at Smith College majoring in Environmental Studies and Policy. She wishes to acknowledge the following individuals for their contribution to this blog post:
- Andrew Cox, Director of Dining Services at Smith College (MA)
- Christopher Howland, Director of Procurement, Logistics & Special Projects Auxiliary Enterprises at UMass Amherst (MA)
- Anna Davis, Beech Hill Farm Manager at College of the Atlantic (ME)