How to feed 1,000 students in a pandemic

Dining halls prep for opening in September with safe, contactless serving designed to accommodate hungry Exonians.

Jennifer Wagner
August 12, 2020
Elm Street dining hall with plexiglass partitions

Food service staff test out new protocols in Elm Street dining hall. 

In early August, a dozen or so mask-clad servers stationed behind plexiglass partitions practiced plating rice and broccoli beef for community members in Elm Street dining hall. This trial run was the second of three soft openings Director of Dining Services Melinda Leonard has planned to test and refine the protocols her team has instituted to keep students safe and well-fed when they arrive on campus in September.

Adapting food service to align with public health guidelines due to the coronavirus has been an ongoing, concerted effort for the past five months. “A lot of our preliminary work and discussions took hold in April and May to connect all the dots and create a more comprehensive program,” says Leonard, who came to the Academy in 2005 from previous posts at Andover and Harvard University. “We had to determine what the model of operations would be and how we were going to feed the students based on the pandemic and the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”  

After evaluating every aspect of the dining experience in order to prioritize community safety, Leonard — in collaboration with leadership across campus — developed a new dining hall model that emphasizes grab-and-go meals, streamlined menus and speed of service.

Exeter's dining services staff

Elm Street will be open with these new updates seven days a week to serve hot breakfast, lunch and dinner. But there are a few extra surprises in store for students as well. Continental breakfast will be delivered to all the dorms twice a week, Leonard says, and a protein tent is planned for Monday, Wednesday and Friday outside of Grill after lunch and before dinner — a time students are often ready for a snack.

Leonard is also in talks with caterers and local restaurants to deliver additional dinner options directly to dorms. And a pizza truck will swing by campus Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., thanks to a generous donor. “We’ll be providing multiple access points for students to grab a bite to eat, all for no charge,” Leonard says. “We’re just adding a little more variety and fun.”

With so much change afoot in dining services, one question must be asked: What about Exeter Bars?  “The chocolate chip cookies and the Exeter bars are here to stay,” Leonard says. “We would never take those away.”

Man pointing to food in Elm Street dining hall with plexiglass between him and the server

Self-serve no more

At least for now, gone are the days of the self-serve salad bar. Each meal will be doled out by trained staff members behind plexiglass wearing face coverings and gloves. Students can preview the daily menu on Exeter Connect as well as via a new smartphone app.

Leonard hopes students will think about their order ahead of time so they can move more quickly through the line for pickup, thereby reducing waiting and backlogs in line. “You just don't have time to go from one item to another and say, ‘Do I want this? Do I want that?’” she says.

Another change: the same menu will be offered in all dining halls to more evenly distribute diners across campus. “Wherever students go, they’re going to get the same meal.”

man holding time clock

Time is of the essence

One of Leonard’s initial concerns was how to get 400-plus students through the Elm Street line as quickly as possible. The less time students spend indoors in a group, the safer the experience.

“The baseline was we really need to get about 35 people through a service line within 15 minutes,” Leonard says. That includes checking students in at the door, walking through properly distanced queues and heading outside with a meal in hand.

“Students’ time is limited, they only have 40 minutes,” Leonard says.  “We want to get them through the line so they can have quality time to eat their meal and not have to multitask in order to eat and work on their studies.”

Woman takes tray of food passed to her by a food worker's hand

Contactless service from a distance

Rather than eating inside the dining halls, multiple cross-functional tents will be setup for dining alfresco. A tent is planned for outside of Elm Street dining hall, another in front of Wetherell dining hall and another in the Jeremiah Smith quad.

man holds a packaged meal


Each meal will come packaged in compostable takeout containers to be eaten elsewhere, with individually wrapped condiments and recyclable utensils, in order to promote safe social distancing.

Mindful of the environmental impact of this to-go model, Leonard met with members of the facilities team, including Manager of Sustainability and Natural Resources Warren Biggins, to design ways to ensure all trash is disposed of properly.

“All of [these efforts are] going to need to fall on everybody, not just the adults, but the students and the adults, in making sure we’re successful,” Leonard says. “It’s a shared responsibility across campus. … Food is important to everyone, whether it’s family or community. It brings people together.”


Becky Moore seated at her Harkness table

The Exeter Bulletin

Teaching from a distance

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