Last updated on November 4, 2021
It’s the time of the school day everyone looks forward to (no not the end of classes): lunch! It’s a great time to socialize with friends who you may not have classes with, along with a much-needed energy boost to get you through the last few classes of the day. Just as you’re salivating for a grilled cheese with tomato soup or a delicious golden curry prepared by the hard-working Northwest School kitchen, you step outside and realize that the lunch line stretches around the block, and you can’t grab a bite at Pagliacci’s or a nearby store across the street. With no choice, you reluctantly get in line and by the time you sit down at your designated lunch location, you have ten minutes to gobble up your now lukewarm curry before heading to class. Unfortunately, this is the situation all too many Northwest School students and faculty have to deal with on a daily basis under the new COVID safety protocols for the dining hall.
While the school has made their best efforts to speed up the lunch process, like adding more self-serve options to lunch, the line can still reach extensive lengths, creating extra hassle for both students and teachers. Additionally, the complex schedule surrounding the lunch period has students feeling lost as to where to go and at what time. Lunch may be a small part of the day, but it has wide-ranging effects for students and faculty alike as they need to function with energy throughout the day.
Like everywhere else, COVID has sent shockwaves throughout the Northwest School as we’ve attempted to adapt rapidly to the ever-changing situation. At first, classes went online, and the building was deserted by students for almost a year. Given this, the food program was put on hold until the fall of 2020, when the kitchen started delivering meals to Northwest families. The kitchen also provided meals to our boarding students, some of whom still remained on campus throughout the pandemic. Last spring the cafeteria welcomed back 70% of its faculty into school, as the dining program prepared meals for in-person school for the first time in a year. Now, the cafeteria is serving food to 40 dorm students and the entire Northwest School community this fall, but all this change doesn’t come without a few hitches along the way.
As mentioned, long lines have plagued the dining program these first few weeks, occasionally stretching around the block and cutting down on the limited free time students and faculty have in the day. Realizing this, the Northwest kitchen, headed by Bethany Fong, has implemented two notable changes to its procedure that aim to speed up the lunch service time. I had the chance to talk to Bethany, the Director of Food Services at Northwest, about these changes. Additionally she gave me some very interesting statistics about the dining room.
The first change was setting up self-serve stations so that, paired with the kitchen posting the lunch schedule ahead of time, students who didn’t want a hot meal that day could pass on the line, and students who checked the menu ahead of lunch knew what they wanted to eat. Another change the dining room faculty made was delivering meals to the 6th grade on the West Court, in turn decreasing the lunch line by a grade. Along with this, the school has staggered lunch times for students and faculty to decrease the amount of people lining up for lunch at a single given time. One fascinating statistic Bethany was kind enough to tell me was that before the changes were implemented on September 20th, the kitchen staff timed the average amount of time it takes a person to be given food and the time came out to 5.3 seconds per person, and while that may not seem like a long time, with roughly 200 people coming in at a time, it would take around 18 minutes to serve everyone. She added that with the new self-service station and the lack of 6th graders in the cafeteria, the time has shrunken by a few minutes, though the relatively long lines are here to stay for the time being due to the influx of people they are feeding every day.
Another COVID-induced situation that has some faculty and students alike frustrated are the schedules surrounding lunch. I came to the Northwest School midway through remote learning, and from my understanding before the pandemic students had much more freedom during lunch. They all ate in the cafeteria, had the choice to wander around school freely, and upper schoolers could sign out and leave campus during free periods and lunch breaks. Now some students are feeling anxious as the seemingly lax rules pre-pandemic have morphed into strict regulations as we’ve returned to school. The new system is affecting teachers as well. Samantha Simon, who teaches 9th grade Humanities and this year is monitoring students during lunch, says “It seems like students are getting restless being unable to leave their assigned lunch spots”. She added “I think it would be great if we could go back to giving students flexibility for where they can go during lunch and for who they can eat with.” Since this situation is moving very quickly, between the time Samantha wrote this and the writing of this article, the school has implemented a new system where students can choose a room to be in during free periods for a few weeks. Despite the continued frustration with the school’s policies by some students, it does seem like the Northwest School is listening to their students’ and faculty’s complaints, and are actively trying to improve the lunchtime experience.
Although it’s understandable why the Northwest School community could be frustrated by the seemingly long lunch lines and the lack of freedom on campus, one of the biggest points Bethany Fong stressed in her interview was the amount of stress the workers in the Dining Room are under. She illustrated this point by documenting how the kitchen is always trying to balance variety, waste, and long lines, but adding “It’s really difficult to have a COVID-safe program where everyone gets what they want (variety), there is little wasted, and the line is fast. For instance, the more options we have, the slower the line is because students spend time choosing and deciding what they want.” Additionally, she explained another challenging issue: “COVID has put pressure on every industry in the food chain including a decreased work force, national and international shipping issues, and the rising costs of raw materials.” This in turn makes the renewable and compostable items that the Northwest School values much more expensive and adds a great deal more complexity in procuring the needed materials and ingredients for food service. As her final wish, Bethany wants everyone to know how hard the kitchen works to prepare meals every school day for the students and faculty, along with on the weekends and holidays for our boarding students, through prioritizing local and organic foods and giving back to the planet and the community. So, if you’re at the back of the line or frustrated by the lunch schedule, think about the reasons this situation might be happening and the labor and hard work that goes into providing meals for our community.