Menlo College’s Food Service Makeover

Sylvia Tarantino

ATHERTON, Calif. — On January 20, as Joe Biden was inaugurated President of the United States, a case of COVID-19 was identified among the Menlo College dining hall staff. Food service, provided by Sodexo, immediately shifted to bagged meals and food trucks. Until February 5, the students had to adjust to limited choices and lots of plastic.

As of February 1, the college welcomed approximately 225 students back on campus for the spring 2021 semester, according to Director of Operations Linda Teutschel. Classes started via Zoom on January 25, but since students have been attending classes online for the entirety of the fall 2020 and part of the spring 2020 semesters, academics weren’t as puzzling as student life.

Food service remained mostly unaltered from the second half of the spring 2020 semester when the pandemic started. After spring break, Sodexo implemented to-go boxes and eliminated self-service stations. This had been the layout until January 20, when a case of COVID-19 among the staff thrust the dining hall into emergency mode. All service stations were closed, and breakfast bags were filled with cereal, milk, juice, fruit, and a dessert. Lunch bags included a sandwich or salad, a side, a dessert, fruit, and a drink. Dinner was provided by two food trucks that changed on a daily basis.

Returning students had already most certainly noticed a change of scenery, marked by twice-weekly rapid COVID tests, construction for a new dorm, increased security staff, and social distancing markers. Despite the challenges of navigating the pandemic, Menlo College strived to take a step towards a new normal.

Commenting on the interruption of dining hall service, Teutschel stated, “The main challenges were the extremely short time to pivot affected products that could be obtained, recruiting Sodexo staff who could organize and package products, and not knowing the food restrictions for many students.” Despite being aware of the situation, some students turned up their nose. “As an athlete, I felt that there was too little healthy, nutritious food. I didn’t like eating just cereal for breakfast and a sandwich for lunch,” said Edin Ibrahimović, a junior volleyball player at Menlo College. 

Non-athletes shared the same concern and suggested some alternatives, such as larger vouchers for the food trucks. According to Alexander Fultz, who does not have any food restrictions, the $15 vouchers were too limiting, in stark contrast with the variety available in the cafeteria.

Shifting to college life, especially during a pandemic, calls for a few lifestyle changes, with all its highs and lows. “I was a pescatarian for about ten months,” recounted Adélie Plumasseau, an international student from Guadeloupe, France. “I stopped when I came back to campus, there wasn’t enough choice for me to continue. I was running out of energy so I started eating meat again and getting my own food.” Since the dining hall service resumed, Adélie has been trying to put her diet back on track. “I would really like to stop eating meat for good, it’s part of my goals and it makes me feel better. What I need now is to feel good physically as well. I think I will continue to get my own food and combine it with the campus food. This way, I might find a nutritional balance.”

Compared to the breakfast and lunch routines, dinner service, provided by food trucks, painted a widely different picture. Teutschel mentioned the food trucks as one of the main successes of the operation. “Students really enjoyed the options available, especially when trucks were able to provide more vegetarian and vegan options.” Teutschel went on to credit the students for their flexibility and enthusiasm for the successful introduction of the food trucks.

Although students welcomed this creative solution, it wasn’t perfect. The more mindful students expressed their concern about the waste generated by the whole operation. Plumasseau defined the amount of waste as “more than dramatic,” and rightfully so. According to a CalRecycle 2019 report, a resident of California generates on average 6.7 pounds of waste daily, only 37% of which is recycled. Interim General Manager of Sodexo Carlos Mercado stated that “while Sodexo prioritizes the use of reusable, natural bioplastic alternatives to single-use plastics, due to COVID restrictions on food service, disposable food containers and utensils are required and are part of our operational protocols to fight COVID-19.” Teutschel agreed “that there was too much waste. However, much of that could not be avoided due to COVID restrictions.” To tackle this issue, Fultz suggested that the school provided reusable canteens instead of bottled water.

Going forward, the Menlo community hopes to learn from this experience. “We now have a template to work with and improve upon in case this might happen again,” said Teutschel. She committed to working with Sodexo to grant more options with an emphasis on nutritional value.

Sylvia Tarantino is a Marketing senior at Menlo College. She was born in New Jersey and grew up in Milan, Italy. Sylvia’s professional interests include media and entertainment, sustainability, and holistic health.