Wolverine Voices: U-M students on the challenges of dining during COVID-19

This story is part of a new series called Wolverine Voices, in which University of Michigan (U-M) student writers will report on campus issues. The writers of this series are currently enrolled in U-M's Community Engaged Writing course, in which first-year students examine and produce non-academic writing genres in the service of a community in order to understand and develop different ways of knowing, and develop strong analytical and writing skills.


In a socially distanced, single-file line, students look longingly at abandoned seating as they pass through the U-M dining halls. Six feet apart, each patiently waits to get a meal to either eat outside or carry back to the dorms. The COVID-19 pandemic has created unforeseen social, financial, and emotional challenges to what was already a notoriously lackluster experience: dining in college.


Once offering stations with a multitude of options, the dining hall now offers only one row of foods. Due to the socially distant lines, students are waiting an hour before even stepping foot into the dining hall, which is dissuading them from utilizing it.


Despite the various drawbacks, dining hall costs have not changed, making many students feel as if their meal plans are being wasted. While grocery stores and restaurants can provide other options, additional costs can quickly add up on top of an already expensive meal plan.


"I am unsatisfied, unimpressed, and disappointed with my dining experience at U-M," says freshman student Jestine Siegel.


The experience has burdened students both mentally and physically.


"The dining hall has made me very upset and stressed out because now I have to figure out where to budget my money," Siegel says. "There are not enough healthy options at the dining hall and I wouldn’t be getting the right nutritional values as I should be."


Due to the lack of options, students are not finding choices that fit their nutritional needs and are turning to the costly option of buying groceries to keep in their dorm rooms.


Students are also concerned about how they will find ways to eat socially as winter approaches. Bringing meals back to one's room can get lonely, and many students want to spend meal time in a social environment after a long day of already isolated online classes.


Upon hearing concerns and disappointed reactions from U-M students about the current dining hall situation, many students have proposed their own solutions and offered ways to improve this significant aspect of campus life. When eating together outside, students are able to gather and socialize while still being able to physically distance.


Freshman student Lindsay Rosenstein is one of many who want U-M to find a socially distanced way for students to eat safely indoors.


"Students can sit in small groups of people and then disinfect those areas once they are finished eating," Rosenstein says.


While the dining halls cannot run at full capacity, a reservation system would allow them to function safely and would give students their desired social dining experience.


Another main concern is the lack of food options available. Compared to previous years, the options are much more limited, which is concerning for students with dietary restrictions. Rosenstein suggests adding more simple, popular foods such as a salad bar, more protein options, and pasta to draw students back to the dining hall and foster healthier eating habits.


Students recognize that U-M cannot accommodate every possible issue with the dining halls, but they express frustration with the way U-M has handled the situation and how it's impacted them.


"I’ve noticed that I don’t go to the dining hall very much, which has made me not eat as many meals just because the lines tend to be long. It’s inconvenient to go there, and I don’t feel it’s worth waiting that long," says Krystal Kao, a freshman living in the dorms, who usually eats at Mosher-Jordan Dining Hall.


U-M has attempted to solve one main problem in the dining halls, the long lines, by having staff direct students to shorter lines. This has significantly improved the wait time, as the lines wrapped around the building and took an hour to go through before this change was implemented. Still, the dinner lines can involve a wait of 25-45 minutes during peak dinner time, and many busy students would rather skip dinner than wait.


The pandemic has changed students’ semesters in more ways than they could have anticipated. New dietary, monetary, and social restrictions have become very real and prominent parts of students’ lives.


But in what feels like a world of chaos and uncertainty, students remain optimistic that new solutions may be implemented. A wider array of foods would help not only people with allergies, but also many other picky eaters. The option of a cheaper meal plan would alleviate some of the financial stressors of the students. And more seating arrangements would allow students to eat socially yet safely.


"I would be happier if I could sit and eat in the dining hall," says freshman student Charlotte Goldstein. "And even though the dining hall is usually a formative aspect of the freshman experience, my friends and I have learned to cope with the long lines, lack of seating, and repetitive meal options."


Brooke Gronich, Orli Katz, Juee Modi, Sofie Mor, Claire Niedermaier, and Alison Weinberg are U-M students.

Photo by Claire Niedermaier.

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