Campus Coronavirus News

Dining considers safety, sustainability during pandemic

While offering UH community members takeout dining options, Cougar Woods Dining Commons is using recyclable to-go products. | Claudette Vega/The Cougar

While offering UH community members takeout dining options, Cougar Woods Dining Commons is using recyclable to-go products. | Claudette Vega/The Cougar

As the coronavirus pandemic readjusts UH dining plans and operations, it has correspondingly changed its sustainability plans and initiatives.

In an effort to encourage social distancing and prevent potential spread, the University began offering to-go meal options at dining halls last spring.

When UH community members take food from Cougar Woods Dining Commons to-go, they’re served in single-use, disposable products.

“Currently, we are using more single-use plastics than before with 30 to 40 percent of our guests taking their meals to-go,” said UH System Dining district manager David Riddle. “In addition, our to-go packaging is 100 percent recyclable.”

Some students who prefer eating in the dining hall say they believe the University is doing well at staying sanitary and preventing the coronavirus spread.

The dining hall staff does a great job of sanitizing,” said journalism freshman Alivia Guster. “Despite the times they shut down to clean, they continue to clean while dining is open. Overall, maintaining a clean and healthy, corona-free environment.”

To encourage the University’s sustainability goals, to-go products used at Cougar Woods Dining Commons, the only dining hall open this fall semester, are made to be recyclable.

In previous academic years, UH dining halls didn’t have to-go meal options.

We have made all packaging at Cougar Woods Dining Commons recyclable, from to-go containers to flatware,” Riddle said. “We are currently outfitting Cougar Woods with environmentally friendly composting receptacles.”

Cougar Woods Dining Commons has additionally transitioned from offering guests reusable silverware to single-use plastic alternatives.

“For enhanced safety, we have added touchless utensil dispensers, which require plasticware,” Riddle said.

When discussing UH dining’s sustainability journey, Riddle mentioned how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted the availability of compostable goods, not just at the University, but nationwide.

Due to the current pandemic, there is a shortage on compostable materials countrywide and prices for compostable items are inflated,” Riddle said.  “When compared to other materials, compostable options are roughly three to four times the cost.”  

Beyond pricing and availability, compostable containers are not preferred for carrying and holding hot food, according to Riddle. 

“In addition, compostable containers do not hold hot items well and tend to get soggy quickly, Riddle said. 

To help prevent food waste on campus, UH dining started demand-based production as a new initiative since the start of the pandemic. With demand-based operations, the amount of food made will reflect the amount the number of people regularly eating at the dining hall.

“Small batch cooking is how we reduce overproduction which is one of the primary causes of food waste,” Riddle said. “We have also adjusted our purchasing and production to reflect the smaller number of guests on campus. Despite the slow down, we’re operating very efficiently.”

Contracts with UH dining’s previous food vendors are one of many aspects shifted due to the coronavirus. These include retail locations that won’t be reopening this semester. 

“The current health pandemic has impacted all aspects of our business and certain vendor partnerships have been placed on hold such as food trucks, Tandoori Night, Smoothie King and others,” Riddle said.

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