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A Look Inside Penn State’s Socially Distanced Dining Halls

Even just a few days after students began returning to campus, Penn State’s dining halls are already radically different than ever before.

All five dining commons have implemented a number of new procedures and precautions to keep both students and employees safe and healthy amid the coronavirus pandemic. Most notably, Penn State Dining did away with self-serve options, removed most indoor seating, and introduced self-swiping.

To catch a glimpse of the new digs myself, I headed over to Pollock Commons this morning to partake in every on-campus student’s favorite meal: a breakfast buffet. And although the new process was certainly different, it didn’t stop students like myself from indulging in the weekend delicacy.

Upon entering the commons, I was pleased to see the path leading upstairs to the buffet was littered with social distancing markers encouraging visitors to stand 6 feet apart. Even better — they were working. The line stretched down a flight of stairs, but everyone in the queue patiently waited from a respectable distance to get upstairs.

Before entering the buffet, each student swiped their Penn State IDs using a contactless scanner at the cash register. Although there’s no longer any contact between guests and cashiers, students are still able to choose how they pay with a simple request.

Finally, it was time for the main event. As I reached the buffet, I was pleasantly surprised to see the area had been revamped into a one-way street. A sign at the beginning of the buffet let guests know about Penn State Dining’s new “All You Can Fit In One Box” initiative (AYCFIOB, for all you slang-slinging kids out there), which works just like it sounds. You can fill up your box as much as you’d like, but you won’t be able to come back for a second trip.

As you pass through the buffet, employees stationed throughout will ask you what you’d like to add to your takeout box and pass your container down the line through each station. During the day, breakfast favorites including pancakes, bacon, eggs, and tater tots are available, while burgers, chicken, pasta, pizza, and more should be available during the evening.

At the end, students have the option to request to-go condiments, including maple syrup, butter, ketchup, mustard, and more. Each takeout box also comes with to-go silverware, a napkin, and some salt and pepper.

A typical breakfast order via Penn State Dining

Once students get farther into the one-way line, they’ll be able to add prepackaged bakery items, salad, fruits and vegetables, and drinks to their order. Because the buffet is still technically an all-you-can-eat ordeal, add-ons come at no extra charge.

Students with dietary restrictions or alternative preferences can call ahead to request items that fit their needs. They’re also able to contact Dining through email to learn more about available options.

Finally, students have the option to follow the one-way queue down the stairs and out of the building or take a pitstop to eat their meal in a designated seating area. Most seating has been removed to encourage social distancing at all times.

Like all on-campus buildings, face masks are required to be worn at all times, except when eating in a socially distanced area. Although seating is sparse indoors, a number of tables were added outside.

All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by how well-executed Dining’s new procedures were. I never felt too at-risk or in danger while grabbing my meal. Employees were even more than willing to take the time to explain new systems to students, many of whom were experiencing their first week on campus.

But as I walked home with my meal in hand, I couldn’t help but think how wasteful takeout dining is, especially under these new measures. Following my sojourn to Pollock, I wound up bringing home a styrofoam takeout box (not recyclable) and a set of plastic silverware (not recyclable) in a plastic bag (that isn’t easily recyclable). If I’d opted into taking out fruit and a drink, I’d have had even more trash.

Thousands of students come through Penn State’s dining halls each day, and with limited indoor seating, most of them are bound to be carrying out their food. If Penn State wants to live up to the eco-friendly standard it constantly sets for itself, the university should focus on providing more sustainable measures to facilitate takeout dining amid the pandemic.

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About the Author

Matt DiSanto

Matt proudly served as Onward State’s managing editor for two years until graduating from Penn State with distinction in May 2022. Now, he’s off in the real world doing real things. Send him an email ([email protected]) or follow him on Twitter (@mattdisanto_) to stay in touch.

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