Gen Z was already transforming campus dining. Then COVID-19 happened.

Expert Insight

Gen Z was already transforming campus dining. Then COVID-19 happened.

The coronavirus crisis has massively disrupted the food and dining industry. From flour and yeast shortages due to a renaissance in at-home baking to closed restaurants and unpicked fields due to local shelter-in-place orders, participants from across the food chain—farmers, grocers, cooks, customers—have come under strain. University dining services have unsurprisingly been impacted as well, with skeleton crews forced to operate reduced venues to support the few students and staff still on campus.

Prior to the crisis, however, campus dining spaces were already undergoing significant changes based on the preferences and eating habits of students in the Generation Z cohort. The impact of COVID-19 will amplify these student desires long after campuses reopen for business. Here are three ways COVID-19 will change campus dining—and the Gen Z-focused investments already well-positioned to support these evolving student needs.

“Safe” dining will become an important factor

Examples of George Mason University’s fleet, taken by EAB

Though outbreaks of coronavirus will eventually diminish, concerns about infections—and another pandemic-level event—will remain with students for years to come. Therefore, when students choose where to dine, they are likely to value spaces with safety design measures that limit their exposure to high-touch surfaces and large groups of people. Even students frequenting larger dining halls may not return to their original habits, instead choosing to take food to go or eat only with trusted friends where they can maintain social distance from others.

Fortuitously, many of the investments that institutions were already investing in changes to make dining both more convenient and safer for students. Biometric access scanners quickly get students into dining halls without having them touch physical cards or surfaces. Food lockers such as those at Rider University allow students to order from smartphone apps and pick up food without having to interact with other people. And robotic delivery fleets piloted by early pioneers at George Mason University and the University of Houston hold the promise of letting students get their food wherever they are—without having to step into crowded dining halls at any point in the process.

Transparency takes on new dimension for Gen Z

Even before COVID-19 struck, students increasingly wanted to know where their food came from and how it was prepared. The pandemic will intensify the demand for dining transparency, as students seek assurances that no part of the food preparation process will put them at greater risk. Already in parts of Asia, restaurants report the temperature readings of those who cooked and served a meal, and staff have transformed once-hidden cleaning activities into prominent customer-facing tasks.

Many schools had begun to modify the design and materials used in their dining spaces to make the eating experience more transparent for students. Glass dividers at the University of Illinois shine a light on the food preparation process, while exhibition cooking stations at places such as the University of Houston allow students to build trust with culinary staff. These features will now also help maintain customer confidence in the effectiveness of campus’s dining operations and sanitation. And while likely requiring additional health protocols due to recent events, student self-service cooking spaces such as those at Simon Fraser University may grow in popularity as students desire even greater control over their day-to-day dining.

Food insecurity will get worse


of U.S. college students are food insecure
of U.S. college students are food insecure

Food insecurity was already at the forefront of university leaders’ minds before the crisis, as an estimated 40% of U.S. college students lack regular and consistent access to the meals they need. The consequences of the pandemic—in particular, the deep economic downturn expected to follow—will only exacerbate this problem. The increase in students and families suffering from food insecurity will likely strain existing community resources, placing greater pressure on universities to help fill the gap.

Fortunately, some schools had already begun to innovate on ways to promote food security on campus. East Tennessee State University took a holistic and cross-silo approach to expand their food pantry, establish food scholarships, and create meal donation banks for students in need. Meanwhile, institutions like the University of British Columbia have experimented with choose-what-you-pay retail stations where students can privately decide between subsidized and “pay-it-forward” rate options.

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