Catering: Safe to eat?

As staff and students return for a new academic year, how will Covid-19 have changed the catering landscape on campus? Steve Wright investigates

Students and staff are now returning to campus for what promises to be a markedly different learning, working and socialising landscape. The Covid-19 epidemic and lockdown will have changed so many aspects of university life, with rigorous hygiene and social distancing now essential across campus.

One of the sectors to be most affected will be catering. The way staff and students order, receive and consume food and drink, and the way caterers prepare and deliver those items, will be forced to change. But just how will social distancing measures affect food and drink provision on campus? How is campus catering going to look this year, and beyond?

“Most universities have adapted, during lockdown, to provide takeaway operations and selling pre-packaged items – and it’s likely that these will continue to be a core focus,” says Matthew White, chairman at The University Caterers Organisation (TUCO). “We’ve also heard of some universities installing temporary external structures to provide more room for eating, in light of social distancing needs. We also expect universities to streamline some of their menu or ranges that they offer on campus.”

Indeed: in a recent survey of its members, TUCO found that a high proportion of respondents expected to restrict menu items on reopening, while 73% plan to cut back on the range of products they purchase.

A significant part of the changes will be around how customers access the catering services in the first place. “We’ve seen a huge surge in ‘click and collect’, both from universities already operating such a scheme and others planning to adopt it when their food outlets reopen,” Matthew continues. “In fact, 68% of those that responded to our poll were planning to introduce a click and collect service, something they hadn’t offered pre-Covid. Other procedures have included installing Perspex screens, implementing one-way systems, and investing in technology that facilitates cashless purchases and virtual queueing systems.”

Certain catering scenarios may be more affected than others. “Smaller kitchens may find it hard for their catering staff to operate while social distancing, which may in turn impact on what catering they are able to offer,” Matthew confirms. “Indeed, we’ve heard that some members are buying in more items and dishes that, previously, they would have prepared themselves on-site. The increased pivot towards takeaways has also had an impact on what kind of food is being served, and self-serve options are no longer being offered.”

Vanessa Gouws is head of commercial services at Goldsmiths, University of London. “We’ve been working with our catering contractors to find innovative ways to meet the changing needs of our students and staff as we welcome them back to campus. I don’t think we will see a radically different university catering landscape – we’ll still be opening up all our existing campus eateries, but we will be looking at shorter opening hours and slimmed-down menus that focus on favourites and handheld takeaway food to cater for changing customer demands.”

There’s a balance to be struck here with another huge current topic: sustainability. “Balancing an increase in takeaway products with our commitment to recycling and minimising waste packaging such as single-use plastics does pose a challenge – but it’s something we’re looking at carefully.”

The post-lockdown landscape will be a catalyst in the increasing automation of menus, ordering and delivery. “The use of digital platforms for food ordering has accelerated across all age groups during lockdown, and it’s likely that this behaviour will continue,” Vanessa reflects. “It presents a challenge to the traditional ‘walk up, order and eat in’ model: but it also opens up opportunities, and will be really important in helping to manage social distancing on campus.

There have been some positive aspects to emerge from the last few months, and from our various enforced changes of behaviour and vigilance towards our own health and that of the community around us. “Research shows a huge increase in people saying that they are now more aware and interested in their own health and that of the community,” says Vanessa. “In 2019, Goldsmiths introduced a range of measures as part of the early stages of a ‘green new deal’: these included an end to beef product sales on campus, and an increase in vegetarian and vegan options and healthy alternatives. These initiatives have been very well received.”

New initiatives at Goldsmiths include a new app, ready for introduction in the autumn term, with click-and-collect functionality and new collection points across campus; and plans to work with external delivery companies to open out home deliveries to students, staff and even local residents. Elsewhere, the college is looking at introducing a collection point for pre-ordered vegetable boxes, thus boosting community health and supporting a local business; ensuring stringent hygiene practices and social distancing for all catering staff; and re-planning seating areas, self-cleaning stations and signage in all food and drink service areas.

So much for the ordering, preparation, delivery and consumption of food and drink on campus. But what of the food and drink itself – how can smart nutrition choices maintain, or even boost, health across the campus community? In what ways should the Covid epidemic influence thinking around nutrition and menu design?

“Like everything new and unfamiliar, it will take time and comprehensive research to develop our understanding of Covid-19,” says Charlotte Harbour, business manager and nutritional therapist at catering consultants Russell Partnership. “At present, we understand that there are nutritional and lifestyle risk factors involved. For example, many of us have heard that excess weight can increase risk of serious illness and death from Covid-19. Likewise, supplements such as zinc, curcumin (turmeric) and intravenous vitamin C have shown evidence of support against Covid-19. And clearly, we should be considering how we can optimise our immune systems and overall health to place us in positions of strength going forward.”

Some nutritional advice must be pitched at the individual, rather than campus level. “It is likely that epidemics will continue to be a part of life, due to high population densities, globalisation and the ease of travel. The best way that we can safeguard ourselves, from a nutritional and lifestyle standpoint is to stay strong, healthy and fit – which, understandably, is easier for some individuals than others.

“Generally, my advice is to maintain a diet that is low in refined sugar, and rich in vegetables, quality proteins (such as salmon) and healthy fats such as avocadoes, nuts and seeds. I also recommend exercising for 30 minutes per day, alternating each session between high-intensity, gentle walking, endurance, resistance and stretching where possible. Of course, relaxing activities, social gatherings (where safe) and meaningful work are all important.”

We’ll still be opening up all our existing campus eateries, but we will be looking at shorter opening hours and slimmed-down menus – Vanessa Gouws, Goldsmiths

Should we see Covid and the post-lockdown landscape as a challenge needing urgent attention – or an opportunity to start to do things better?

Both, Charlotte stresses. “We face huge challenges – but we also have opportunities to fundamentally optimise our nutrition and lifestyle practices. The government has been endeavouring to bring about positive change for some time, and with some successes (decreasing smoking), but there is much more to be done.

Governments and regulatory bodies should be careful to make the correct changes, however. “At present, there is talk of placing calorie information on all menus.

This is an understandable step towards decreasing obesity levels, when obesity has been shown to be a factor in contracting Covid-19: but it’s not the right measure, as it places emphasis on the wrong area of nutrition and may be triggering to those with eating disorders.”

Instead, both at a government and a campus level, says Charlotte, “Let us consider how we can substitute healthy foods rich in vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients; how we can educate our students and populations in how to take care of their bodies nutritionally, physically and mentally; and how we can develop ways of bringing people together to socialise and share ideas.”

We must understand students’ unique requirements from multiple perspectives – dietary, cultural, religious, medical and lifestyle – Charlotte Harbour, Russell Partnership

Interestingly, HE communities in particular, with their large concentrations of people, ethnic diversity, and generally younger age group, will have their own set of priorities around nutrition and menus.

“The demographics on campus are pivotal to the menu composition,” Charlotte explains. “We must understand students’ unique requirements from multiple perspectives – dietary, cultural, religious, medical and lifestyle.

“Likewise, when considering the nutritional balance of menus and offers, we must understand that, generally, different life stages and activity levels require different nutritional strategies. Furthermore, understanding the eating behaviour of the demographic is important to develop appropriate offers, whether that be dining, snacking or impulse consumption.”

So, will we be looking at a radically different university catering landscape – or just a few small, easily absorbable changes? “It’s hard to say, as it will be different for each university depending on their individual circumstances,” Matthew White reflects. “Prior to the lifting of lockdown, many changes already had to be made. How much more change is needed will depend on what happens in the future, which is, of course, increasingly hard to predict.”

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