Dining and Conference Services staff members do their best to meet the needs of students

The nucleus of campus life, Wheelock Student Center is usually abuzz with activity, teeming with students, faculty, staff, and community members who use the space to socialize, share meals, and study. But the coronavirus pandemic changed that this spring, and the building that normally greets thousands of campus members each day now stands largely empty and silent.

At the heart of the student center is The Diner, the campus dining hall, and Diversions Café, one of three campus coffee shops, both overseen by Puget Sound’s Dining and Conference Services (DCS). These locations normally handle more than 4,000 transactions a day, but since the college moved to remote learning and operations in March, that number has dwindled to a mere 200 on any given day.

DCS team members practice social distancing in The Diner.

But food has long been a means of forming connection, and DCS staffers have made it their mission to make these 200 daily interactions quality ones. With students facing an incredible amount of change and displacement as a result of the pandemic, Senior Dining Services Manager Chelsea Bairey and her team are doing what they can to ensure that campus meals remain a source of comfort and, even, community.

“We really wanted to know what was important for the students and find ways to incorporate those needs into the menus,” Bairey says. She emailed the roughly 200 students remaining on campus or living nearby who maintain and rely on their university meal plans, surveying them on their allergies and dietary restrictions, their favorite meals, and more. Based on their responses, DCS has been building menus to accommodate as many requests and restrictions as possible.

With a limited staff and reduced resources, DCS team members have been “cross-training and stepping out of their comfort zones, learning new techniques and pulling together to ensure students are fed,” Bairey says. They’re also listening. Individual grocery items weren’t on Bairey’s radar of things students may want to access until one student responded to the survey expressing how much she would appreciate snacks and general grocery items to supplement her meals from The Diner. In response, DCS made several of the racks from The C-Store (the mini-mart associated with The Cellar, Puget Sound’s student-run pizza shop) available in The Diner. For items not normally found on campus, DCS is getting creative, measuring out flour from bulk and cutting its own blocks of cheddar cheese to sell. Even the popular in-house-brewed Kombucha from Diversions got a shoutout on the survey: “I would be so very grateful to get my hands on that yummy fermented bubbly drink,” one student wrote. “It keeps me on my A-game during these virtual classes.”

Students didn’t respond to the survey with only their favorite foods and special requests, though; they also shared their gratitude. Some of the notes include: “Thank you so much for all the work you all are doing,” “Thank you so much for doing this,” and “Thank you for reaching out to us!”

That appreciation and the care—and food—that inspired it help form and strengthen the connections that are vital to the Puget Sound community. “The students have been wonderful and patient with us,” says Bairey. “We work really hard to meet the needs of the students because this is their kitchen and home.”