After an unpredictable 2020-2021 school year, the LaRita Boren Campus Center and the Dining Commons (DC) are once again working to feed hungry students at Taylor.
Last year presented numerous challenges to dining services coordinator, Nathaniel Malone, and his team. They had to power through mask mandates, continuous changes, uncertainty and the long lines that were the result of students not being allowed to self-serve.
“It was mandated that you couldn’t have full service or self-service,” Malone said. “You had to keep people distanced, and you had to keep people in masks, and it was just a very difficult scenario. I think overall we did a really good job. We had to change rapidly to meet the demands.”
Now, with a return to normalcy on the horizon, food services are facing new obstacles: understaffing and supply chain issues.
Hundreds of students wade through the DC weekly to take advantage of the options Malone serves for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
When students are not eating at the DC, they are most likely at the campus center, taking advantage of the campus Chick-Fil-A.
The campus center also lets hungry Trojans chow down on pizza at Pie Co. and Asian cuisine at Dashi Noodle Bar. Fresh and Fresh Express offer students healthier alternatives like salads and sandwiches.
With self-service now a possibility, Fresh is again offering to-go salads and Chick-Fil-A has reinstated its chute.
Increased precautions continue to be a factor at both the student center and the DC.
“I don’t feel like new procedures have been in place, just the ones that COVID brought,” said retail manager Jennifer Evans, who oversees a large part of the dining experience at the student center. “We’re just continuing to kind of do (what COVID had us doing): social distancing as much as we can, heightened sanitation and cleaning.”
While the start of the 2021 school year at Taylor has seen less masks and students back serving themselves, Malone and the dining services team still face other challenges related to the pandemic.
Supply chain issues have made it difficult for Malone to get enough chicken, so the Pie Co. is unable to serve wings along with its normal pizza offerings. Staffing issues, including a low number of student workers, have also presented their own set of obstacles.
Additionally, Chick-Fil-A is not currently offering salads and wraps because Malone does not have enough hands behind the counter to put them on the menu.
“We still have a lot of offerings, but not what we want,” Malone said. “We want to have a lot more, and at some point we’ll get to that, but it’s just an impossible scenario right now with no staff and poor supply chain.”
While Malone and his staff may not be providing all the options they had planned, their effort to produce as much as they possibly could has not gone unnoticed. The goal is to be accommodating to each individual who sets foot inside the DC.
The Zone, which is devoid of the top eight allergens, makes it easy for students with special dietary needs to grab a bite. According to freshman Brayden Gilbert, the easily accessible fruits and vegetables have been a real crowd pleaser too.
“I appreciate the variety,” Gilbert said. “It’s fun, it’s better than high school for sure.”
Some foods may still be off the menu, but the Taylor community is finally dining together again. According to Malone, the community aspect at the DC is almost as important as the food itself.
“If I walk out of my office and look down, I can see all the students around their tables conversing, and you just feel that joy and that community,” Malone said. “It’s pretty cool.”
Of all of the campus firsts each year, junior Grant Bork always makes sure he is on campus for the first big meal at the DC.
“The best part of the DC isn’t the food, it’s the community aspect of ‘I’m going to go to dinner with 20 other guys, and I’m going to get to know at least one of them better,’” Bork said. “And that’s something I really like about it.”