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Student Senate hosts town hall on dining concerns

In a virtual town hall with the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Student Senate, the executive director for hospitality service Bill McNamara said that UNH Dining is considering new ways to increase efficiency in the dining halls without compromising safety. 

“We’re looking to create another line, maybe someplace else,” McNamara said. “One of the first things that we have to take into consideration [and] what we have to be able to work through is how the line is going to move through the facility to make sure that everybody is still distant.” 

It was the Student Senate’s first town hall this semester, held on Friday, Sept. 25. The event was hosted through Zoom and moderated by Student Body President, Nicholas Fitzgerald; Vice Student Body President, Tyler Silverwood; and Health and Wellness Council, Yuri Makar.  

The town hall was hosted along with UNH Dining to address students’ concerns and complaints regarding the dining halls this semester. The event was divided into three parts: introduction of UNH Dining’s outline, addressing the concerns of students, and a live Q&A at the end. 

During the first segment, McNamara, the executive director for hospitality service, began by explaining UNH Dining’s outline for the fall semester. He stated that the plan to reopen was made in late spring, right after the shutdown due to the coronavirus (COVID-19). “We really needed to make the best decision possible with the information we had at that time,” he said. 

In order to continue their operation this semester, McNamara said that UNH Dining has to follow and keep up with the latest version of guidelines provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).  “Hopefully what you’ve been noticing is what we’re continuing to learn, continuing to listen, and we’re continuing to adjust our services while staying within the safety guidelines,” he said. 

One of the main concerns for UNH Dining this semester is the wait time. “We knew that 6-foot physical distancing and no self-service was going to create backed up lines and longer wait time for everyone,” said McNamara. Due to this concern, the dining hall was initially not able to provide food customization services for students. “We felt that it was important to have minimal wait times to make sure that students were able to keep on schedule,” he explained. However, with the updated guidelines by CDC and DHHS, UNH Dining is trying to slowly incorporate this feature for students.  

McNamara also voiced out his concerns about how long lines would take up more space because he “wants to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to be able to sit in the dining room.” He added, “Creating these lines are some of the things that take a little bit of time and challenges us a little bit.”  

In the second and third parts of the town hall, most of the questions from students were regarding the food options, product sustainability, and the cancellation of meal plans and swipes.  

In response to students wanting more food options, David Hill, the director of dining, said that UNH Dining tries to write a menu and continue to offer stir fry and salad bar that is “going to hit the broad segment of the population.” 

Central Café, located at the Whittemore Center, serves a variety of comfort food ranging from chicken tenders to fries and even pizzas. “We did add 30 meal exchanges to every single unlimited plan with a value of $8.50 that could be used at Central Cafe,” said McNamara.  

Regarding other food options such as vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free diet, Rochelle L’Italien, a registered dietician at UNH, said that students could go on the dining hall website and use the filter option to see which dining halls are providing those meals.  

UNH Dining has also increased the servings for meat alternatives. “We’ve added veggie burgers, for instance, three times a week now between the three dining halls. We’ve also added some plant-based proteins like portions of black beans and other beans and lentils, that can be asked for on request at any of the food stations we add,” said L’Italien.  

In terms of sustainability at the dining halls, McNamara said, “We are committed to sustainability and we’re using compostable items as we are able to.”  

Hill reminded students that UNH Dining had to make these changes back in the summer. They need to ensure that they have the supplies they need available in a large amount. And while restaurants were also resorting to compostable instead of plastic, the supplies were shorter than their demand.  

Nonetheless, McNamara assured students that being sustainable is very important to UNH Dining and that they are always working with their vendors.  

As of right now, the period for students to cancel their meal plans or swipes has ended. Students have had the first four weeks to cancel their meal plans or swipes since UNH Dining extended their initial cancellation period. However, “As far as swipes, they do carry from fall into spring. So if you’re not using your swipes this semester you would be able to use them in the spring term,” said McNamara.  

In an interview with The New Hampshire, Fitzgerald said, “The concept of a town hall is something that I thought we should always be doing. It is a great way of both [providing] transparency and also getting opinions directly from the students to the senators.” Additionally, Fitzgerald explained that being in a state with the longest history of town halls, the Student Senate at UNH should utilize this concept more. 

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