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UMaine Dining adapts to COVID-19 restrictions with creative and sustainable solutions

The coronavirus has forced universities to rethink everything that was considered commonplace and often taken for granted, from sports teams to classes to, not surprisingly, dining halls. Students who lived on campus at the University of Maine can recall the huge crowds flocking to York Dining for their buffalo chicken wrap every Wednesday, and we all remember how difficult it  was to get a seat in the Memorial Union during the lunch rush. To comply with social distancing guidelines UMaine has had to completely reimagine the dining experience on campus by implementing new policies and guidelines.

One of the biggest changes that arose from the social distancing guidelines was the removal of indoor seating. Rather than eat inside a dining hall, students are now expected to take food from dining halls in to-go containers and eat either in their rooms or outside. 

“Currently we are not allowing seating in our residential dining rooms. We have based our decision regarding seating from recommendations from the [Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)] and the state of Maine,” Director of UMaine Dining, Glenn Taylor, said. “With the very limited capacities outlined by the state, we needed [to] add outdoor seating. We have positioned several picnic tables in all the areas near the residential dining units as well as drop boxes for the to-go containers and more trash receptacles.” 

Students are allowed to sit in the Memorial Union, however, strict restrictions have been imposed: only one student is allowed per booth, and students are encouraged to use touchless payment with their MaineCard. The Bear’s Den Cafe and Pub remains completely closed until further notice. 

   Along with outdoor seating and to-go meals, all employees and students who enter the dining halls must wear a mask. There are separate doors for exiting and entering the buildings, signage on the floor to direct traffic flow and rope barriers to ensure that everyone stays in the appropriate lane. Lastly, plexiglass barriers were installed to stop the spread of the virus. All these measures help ensure the safety of students and staff for the small amount of time that students are allowed to be in the dining halls. 

One of UMaine Dining’s biggest concerns was how they were going to sustainably allow all students to take their food to go. Typical materials that are associated with takeout meals such as Styrofoam containers, disposable plastic and disposable flatware can create a lot of unnecessary waste. UMaine dining devised a solution that allowed containers to be sustainable and reusable. 

“We also looked at our sustainability mission and [were] very concerned with the amount of paper/plastic that a ‘to-go’ program would generate,” Taylor said. “The decision to introduce a green to-go container was made. We needed to also partner with Resident Life, Housing Services and Facility Management to develop an efficient way to gather the containers and get them back into our dining halls to be cleaned and sanitized for reuse. At this point, we feel this new program is going very well.” 

UMaine Dining’s collaboration with departments across campus shows just how dedicated UMaine is to reducing waste. In addition, some food that is not consumed at the dining halls is packaged up and sent over to the Black Bear Exchange, the food pantry on campus. 

UMaine Dining has been making an effort to create exciting meals and a wonderful dining experience despite it being take-out only. Students are allowed to re-enter the facility if they wish to take more food. Additionally, UMaine Dining started testing new recipes over the summer that would be more compatible with dining to go. 

“Our menus are flexible.” Taylor said. “We are writing and testing a new menu cycle to take effect in two weeks to keep choices fresh and new.” 

The goal is to prepare healthy yet delicious entrees that pair well with multiple sides so students feel they have a variety of options to choose from.  

Despite difficult times, UMaine Dining has made a tremendous effort to keep students safe and healthy, while thinking about the effects of their waste.

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