Overhauling campus dining for a new era

"[Campus dining leaders] need to tell the story to upper management, to their presidents and chancellors," NACUFS CEO Robert Nelson says. "They can illustrate campus dining's impact on student success and engagement, which is the mission of the university itself."

College campus dining services found themselves struggling to survive after the pandemic, and the whiplash it generated requires it to critically rethink its operations and enact new strategies for the years to come, according to a new report from the National Association of College & University Food Services (NACUFS).

In “Campus Dining: 2030 and Beyond,” NACUFS followed the quantitative and qualitative research conducted across the country by Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management that collected survey data, interviews and focus groups from college freshmen and college-bound high school seniors, campus dining staff, dining management and administrative leadership.

From improving employee retention to executing tech-enabled decision-making, the 130-page report is the most comprehensive research project on college food services to date, according to NACUFS CEO Robert Nelson.

“Certainly, people have studied automation or tech before, and they’ve studied design before, but this is the first time I am aware that all of these issues were studied together in a comprehensive study for the purpose of responding to labor challenges,” he says.

Nelson believes that campus dining services must be proactive about modernizing the student experience, and they shouldn’t shy away from employing storytelling techniques to spread the word on how vital it is to prioritize their mission.

“They need to tell the story to upper management, to their presidents and chancellors,” he says. “They can illustrate campus dining’s impact on student success and engagement, which is the mission of the university itself.”

Here are some pillars that must be addressed and revamped to sustain the vitality of dining services.

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Student and non-student labor

To ensure that students who take advantage of their institutions’ campus dining services enjoy a high-quality experience, they must be able to retain a team of high-quality individuals from the student body and outside community. However, many such services are struggling with poor recruitment and retention rates.

As difficult as it may be for an institution to raise their workers’ pay, ensuring that student employees can envision how their experience can be conducive to a clear career path can improve their motivation and worth in their employment.

“We have not done a good job of spreading what a great opportunity this can be for students: for learning, training and moving into other positions,” Nelson says. “Students don’t need to stay on the operations side. Their experience can translate into marketing, design and [public relations].”

For non-student employees, proper compensation is all important. However, there are other facets schools can work on to increase their recruitment and retention rate, such as by providing health-related benefits, tuition discounts and free or discounted meals. Additionally, employees were particularly attracted to belonging to a vibrant community and gaining a sense of belonging in the workplace.

Despite efforts to increase student and non-student employee recruitment, labor constraints may persist. As a result, institutions should explore how technology (such as automation) can help mitigate labor issues and design facilities to cope with a smaller labor pool.

Adapting to emerging technologies

The advent of new technologies has fundamentally changed how students interact with one another, blurring the lines between socialization and private time. As a result, dining facilities need to create flexible designs that cope with student interests.

For example, facilities must employ equipment that fosters “quick disconnectedness” that can easily modify a room’s aesthetic to fit students’ interests.

“There is an incredible need for flexibility,” Nelson says. “Students in the morning may want to sit on a couch and have a cup of coffee, while for lunch, they may want to be at independent tables where they can plug in and have a sandwich.”

Additionally, transactional service innovations are modifying how dining halls can execute services and receive payments. While employees and students alike responded well to dining services increasing tech-enabled operations, they were wary of it hindering humane interpersonal connectedness.

“Students want technology to make the transaction, but they don’t want it to cook their food,” Nelson says.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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