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.