Dining centers adapt to feed students during pandemic

Three food trucks were brought onto campus for students to compensate for the ongoing construction of the Derby Dining Center. Students can use their meal plan swipes toward a meal. Monday through Thursday, the trucks were located at Van Zile Dining Center, and on Friday they were at the Kramer Dining Center. (Macey Franko | Collegian Media Group)

For students on campus, getting food looked a little different this semester.

In a normal year, Kansas State usually has three dining centers available. However, the Derby Complex’s closure and construction left only the Kramer and Van Zile complexes open this semester. At the beginning of the semester, meals were distributed from the halls in disposable takeout containers, until Housing and Dining Services began offering limited dine-in options on Oct. 19.

Through it all, Kelly Whitehair, registered administrative dietitian for the Department of Housing and Dining Services, oversaw menu management and recipe development coordination.

“I’m going to brag on us a little bit because we rock,” Whitehair said. “We have a lot of experience and when it comes to getting food. It’s all a guessing game in something that we call forecasting. We might think we have it down, and then something big happens on campus and it really changes how people eat.”

Whitehair said her staff tries to avoid food waste as much as possible and re-uses food as leftovers as much as they can.

“We have very few food wastes on our end, we’re really good at reusing what we don’t use as leftovers,” Whitehair said. “If we have chili leftover, we’ll put it back on the grill and use it again the next day for chili dogs or chili fries and it works great.”

Part of Whitehair’s job is predicting how much food the dining halls need to have for students.

“I wouldn’t say it’s that difficult for me because it’s my job,” Whitehair said. “Because of COVID, we’re having to forecast two months ahead of time to make sure that our vendors have enough of what they want and to make sure that they have enough food in general.”

However, the pandemic created factors beyond her control.

“The supply chain has been a mess,” Whitehair said. “Whether there are shortages of things, whether there are delays in shipments or the fact that food prices are insane at the moment, and so it’s really hard to determine when do you buy the food. Kind of like buying stocks in a way.”

Whitehair said the hardest part of the job is dealing with issues out of their control, even before the pandemic.

“There are so many factors that are out of our control,” Whitehair said. “Students get moody, students get stressed, things change and there are just so many factors that are out of our control that it makes it hard to predict exactly what is going to work all of the time.”

Max Brenneman, junior in organizational management, used the dining centers throughout the semester and said he can see how anticipating demand can be a challenge.

“It is just a hard problem to solve … you never know how many students are going to eat certain food every meal,” Brenneman said. “I think that COVID has contributed to the issue just because of their mindset being people getting food delivered to them. Or they don’t feel comfortable just going to the places to get food.”

In the past, the university worked to compost waste that can’t be prevented or saved with the help of the College of Agriculture. In 2019, nearly 97,000 lbs of food waste from the three dining halls was recycled to provide material for agricultural research.

Whitehair said we need to “work together to keep everyone fed.”

“We need to keep everyone safe, and we need to keep everyone healthy,” Whitehair said. “It doesn’t need to just be during COVID. It needs to continue whenever this COVID thing ends.”