Holiday Meal for 1,800? Sure, No Problem

Tufts organized meals for students staying on campus over Thanksgiving, with help from local restaurants
Rows of paper bags on tables in a gymnasium. Tufts organized meals for students staying on campus over Thanksgiving, with help from local restaurants
“It was a massive effort, but Tufts Catering and Dining Services organized things down to a science,” said Joe Golia. On Thanksgiving, students “were in and out of the Gantcher Center in five minutes” picking up meals to go.
December 3, 2020

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Your teen just turned vegan, your youngest only eats drumsticks, and your partner is pescatarian and lactose-intolerant. Hosting Thanksgiving dinner isn’t for the faint of heart. And if you want a real challenge, try whipping up 1,800 Thanksgiving dinners plus other meals for hungry college students over a long holiday weekend.

Dining Services on the Medford/Somerville campus is normally closed for the Thanksgiving break, from Thursday through Sunday afternoon. COVID-19 made this year different. Undergraduate and graduate students had the choice of remaining at Tufts over the break and completing the semester in person or traveling and then finishing classes via distance learning.

“We surveyed students about their plans. We appreciated that many chose to stay. There was general agreement that we should offer a holiday dining program that would provide students with food options that were different than usual and would also give as many dining service employees as possible time off on and around the holiday,” said Camille Lizarríbar, dean of student affairs and chief student affairs officer for Arts, Sciences and Engineering. “And we wanted the program to be available to everyone whether they lived on or off campus, whether they had a meal plan or didn’t. We chose to open the door wide.”

In less than a month, a team that included Community Relations, Dining Services, Facilities, and Student Affairs came up with a plan that offered students who signed up a choice of lunch and dinner options provided by selected local restaurants. “At a time when many restaurants desperately need more business, this was a way for Tufts to support our host communities,” said Rocco DiRico, director of government and community relations.

Students who indicated they wanted meals over the break completed a detailed survey to facilitate planning. Dining Services Catering Manager Eric Hamel translated voluminous survey responses into detailed food orders to be filled by restaurants. In addition, Dining Services produced several hundred special diet meals, including kosher, halal, and allergen-free options, while also delivering meals to students in quarantine and isolation.

“Key to success was our decision to work with a limited number of restaurant caterers that we knew could deliver what we needed,” said Director of Dining and Business Services Patti Klos.

Four restaurants in Medford and Somerville—Avellino’s, Carroll’s, Dave’s Fresh Pasta, and Salvatore’s—delivered prepackaged lunches and Thanksgiving dinner to the Gantcher Center, the largest venue on campus, which could accommodate physical distancing and other safety requirements. Students could also pick up food at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts campus in Boston. Friday and Saturday dinners were available via credits with the delivery service Uber Eats.

“It was a massive effort, but Tufts Catering and Dining Services organized things down to a science. It was very quick. On Thanksgiving, people were in and out of the Gantcher Center in five minutes,” said Joe Golia, director of the Office of Campus Life, who was on site all four days (he did make it home for a late-afternoon Thanksgiving dinner).

In addition, the Tufts University Social Collective (TUSC), the main programming board of the Medford/Somerville and Fenway campuses, offered swag bags. Students picked up about 1,500, said John Wescott, associate director for campus life-programming and TUSC advisor, who supported the effort.

“The goal was to give some fun games to pass the time and allow students to feel connected with their cohorts during this tough time, give some candy and food for movie nights, and to just bring smiles to the Tufts undergraduates overall,” said student leaders Matthew Stout, E21, and Maggie Van Scoy, A21, in an email.

Stout and Van Scoy also praised the effort to give dining workers time off and support local businesses. “Overall, the meals were a great success.”

Staff at the Elms Café  at Cummings School prepared 150 complimentary meals for those who were working on campus or were unable to be with family or friends.There were, inevitably, some hiccups. Uber Eats didn’t always work smoothly. Some meals ordered were not picked up—but Catering and Community Relations arranged for those meals to be donated to the Mystic Valley YMCA, which serves Malden, Medford, and Everett.

“We were able to distribute all 500 meals to individuals and families through our YMCA Market in Malden and Mystic Community Market in Medford,” said Debbie Amaral, YMCA president and CEO. “The folks we serve were excited to have some delicious meals to heat and enjoy without having to do the cooking themselves.”

Efforts to brighten the break weren’t limited to the Medford/Somerville and Boston-SMFA campuses. Tufts University School of Dental Medicine invited students to pick up complimentary meals catered by local business on the days before Thanksgiving and offered appreciation lunches for faculty, staff, and residents who had to be on campus to support essential programs and operations between Thanksgiving and winter break. Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, working with the on-campus Elms Café, provided 150 complimentary meals for those who were working on campus or were unable to be with family or friends.

“We’re all navigating a very different world,” said Lizarríbar. That world puts a lot of additional demands on everyone, but “at the end of the day, we’re a team. We’re all trying to pitch in so somebody else can take a break.”