UMass’ extended grab-and-go hours need better execution

The University is filling a need for its students with lengthened hours but isn’t providing quality food during that time

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Caroline O’Connor / Daily Collegian

By Colin McCarthy, Assistant Sports Editor

A rise in COVID-19 cases nationwide led the University of Massachusetts to adopt extended grab-and-go hours, allowing students to take food back to their dorms rather than eating in packed dining halls.

While that decision was made with the goal of giving students peace of mind, the current state of grab-and-go dining is less than ideal. Adjusting the closing time to 9 p.m. from 4 p.m. didn’t come with the proper adjustments to food being served.

Based on my few trips through the express dining so far, it’s difficult to tell if anything is actually being done differently or if the University is just relying on making the same food, prepared in the morning, last five hours longer than it used to. That method is not working.

One night I popped down to Berkshire Dining Commons for a quick bite to eat and decided to give the extended hours a try. I ordered a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs and grabbed a meatball sub from the hot rack just to cover my bases. The result was disappointing.

Of course, this view is subjective, but the opinion that I hold of the food being served is very negative. The meatball sub was borderline inedible. The bread was soaked in marinara to the point of sogginess and one bite put my stomach in shambles. The spaghetti and meatball entrée was only one step above that, as it didn’t taste horrible, but the meal was far from hot and the pasta was pretty watery. It felt like one of those prepackaged frozen meals that you pop into the microwave—you don’t really enjoy the food, but you know it’ll get the job done.

I then wondered if I was being too harsh on that dinner. It could have been just a bad day or a bad time, and other things definitely could have caused my body to react the way it did to the meal. So, I returned to Berk the next day with the hope of giving it a second chance. I went just after 7 p.m., slightly earlier than the previous day, with the hope of a different outcome. To no surprise, the menu disappointed again.

I’ve been to the extended grab-and-go hours a handful of times now, trying both Berk and Hampshire Dining Commons more than once, and each time has been one of two things: subpar food or a shortage of any at all. And it isn’t just me, I’ve talked to a few different peers who have had similar experiences so far.

UMass is filling a major need by bumping up the grab-and-go hours. There are plenty of students on campus who are uncomfortable eating in packed dining commons surrounded by mask-less people. COVID-19 is still a major concern, and even for those who are double vaccinated and boosted, being on campus presents a risk of infection for students as well as the family members they see during the semester—including some whose vaccination status may differ.

Whatever the individual cases may be, many students are choosing to take advantage of the extended grab-and-go hours as the only places on campus where a regular meal swipe can be taken to-go. By acknowledging this issue and providing a solution, the University is actively taking an extra step towards ensuring the safety of its campus community.

At the same time, UMass still has a responsibility to serve its population with quality meals, especially considering how much it parades “No. 1 campus dining.” So, while the idea of these extended hours is great on paper, it is below average in execution. Running out of hot food over an hour before closing or serving bad food is unacceptable because it prevents students from accessing the very meals promised to them. It would force those people to use their meal swipes inside the full dining common, the same place part of the community is trying to avoid in the first place.

Not to mention UMass has proven it can run grab-and-go’s extended hours successfully, albeit on a smaller scale. During the first semesters back on campus when the population was very limited, to-go dining was available from 7 a.m. through midnight and followed the same cadence of regular dine-in options: breakfast, lunch, dinner and late-night. That formula worked well and as someone who lived on campus in the fall 2020 semester, I can say that my experience of it was very positive. But now I wonder, why couldn’t it be repeated?

The University already has the right idea returning to the longer availability of its dine-out service and has a successful blueprint from the past, so it is frustrating for me as a member of the campus population to see the lackluster execution of grab-and-go this semester. UMass shouldn’t just get a participation trophy for listening to its community, it should make more of an effort to legitimately fill students’ needs.

Colin McCarthy can be reached at colinmcca[email protected] and followed on Twitter @colinmccarth_DC.