UChicago pilot food program wins national award for campus sustainability

Dining effort to feed students during academic breaks becomes higher-ed model

When Christopher Toote first came to the United States from his home in the Bahamas, he arrived in Prairie View, Texas, to attend Prairie A&M University.

That November, he, like many international students, experienced the campus emptying out for the Thanksgiving holiday and he had no plans to travel. When he arrived at the dining hall, he encountered a sign that it was closed.

“I had no idea where else to eat!” he recalled. “I found out the dining halls would not reopen until the students came back Sunday night. It was Wednesday. I was caught off guard! I had to make a plan through Sunday for my meals, and there was no kitchen in my dorm.”

That experience inspired him as the executive director of UChicago Dining to develop a novel strategy to provide a continuous meal service during school breaks, making sure no student skips a meal or feels left behind.

“I mentioned the experience I had as an international student at a leadership forum. Nadeem Zafar, the president of strategic accounts for our dining partner, Chartwells Higher Education Dining Services, confirmed he had had a similar experience,” said Toote. Others on the panel agreed that their universities had the same issue.

That yielded an award-winning response: a pilot program called UChicago C.A.R.E.S. or Community Action Reaching Every Student to ensure all students have free access to food during Thanksgiving, winter and spring breaks.

Under the plan, during Thanksgiving and spring breaks, one dining hall would remain open to serve hot, nutritious free meals and snacks to students who anonymously enrolled in C.A.R.E.S.

Over the longer winter break, when food operations are closed, the students could arrange to receive free grocery kits with supplies for 21 meals, with respect for dietary choices.

“It was an opportunity to find out, who are these students?” said Toote. “Let’s make sure they can access a dining hall without a regular meal plan, so … we will take care of you. We needed to get out the message that this University cares. If you need groceries, we care. If you have dietary needs, we’ll ask and follow through.”

The program recently was awarded the 2022 Sustainability Award for Outreach and Education from the National Association of College and University Food Services in recognition of the success of their outreach campaign and the importance of social responsibility.

Community collaboration

“Social responsibility is part of campus sustainability,” said Amreh Hopkins, the Sustainability and Community Engagement director at Chartwells at UChicago. “We realized that to feed everybody, a major communications and community service effort would need to be organized,” he said.

They shared their idea for the pilot with the Center for Identity + Inclusion and the Office of Civic Engagement, who helped them bolster the effort to reach students, potential charitable partners and volunteers.

Chartwells leaders Sandra Lee, Aubrey Dawn and Zafar galvanized support, recognizing the impact the pilot could have on universities. Their marketing team designed an awareness campaign to be featured in dining halls and email communications.

Rolling out program

In November 2022, C.A.R.E.S. launched an information campaign to reach any student attending UChicago, including undergraduate and graduate students, meal-plan or non-meal plan holders, as well as students living on or off campus. Students could enroll anonymously, or, in the spirit of social responsibility, donate flexible spending Maroon Dollars as well as swipes from their meal plans to other students.

Approximately 440 people donated 1,144 meal swipes valued at over $19,500 and $635 Maroon Dollars to support their peers.

“It was an outpouring of goodwill,” said Toote. “We raised awareness of these issues and our students wanted to assist other students experiencing tough times during the breaks.”

In all, 348 UChicago students enrolled in the 2022-2023 pilot, which provided 9,644 meals. UChicago Dining sent personalized texts and emails to those enrolled that provided them with a PIN to relay to dining cashiers and pick up dates and locations to retrieve their groceries.

Thirty volunteers helped with student outreach, food and monetary donations and assembling and distributing grocery kits over a four-day pickup window. Many came from UChicago Dining and other UChicago offices, and together they donated approximately 500 hours of time to the effort.

Among the businesses that donated groceries were Alpha Bakery, J.M. Smucker Company, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Horizon Organic, and Midwest Foods. Additionally, the Midway Market on campus and the nonprofits Envisions Unlimited and The Kindness Campaign contributed space and supplies.

Spreading the word

The University of Illinois Chicago and DePaul University joined in time to launch CA.R.E.S. at Thanksgiving for their students.

This summer, UChicago Dining will be sharing the C.A.R.E.S. model with domestic and international universities that have contacted them to consult on starting their own programs.

The program will continue here as the University recently approved donated funds from friends of the University to support C.A.R.E.S. over the next three years.