The Price Dining Hall and COVID-19: A new normal


Students crowd around the tables outside in the early morning for breakfast outside the Price Dining Hall. Credit: Kaylynn Chang (‘23)

It is 11:50 A.M.

You have been looking forward to this moment all morning, and after waiting patiently, it is finally time. You get out of your seat. With each step, the anticipation builds. You go around the corner and see it: The Price Dining Hall. But wait—it is a bit different from what you remember.

The tables are outside—the dining hall is now a dining patio. You stand in line to grab a pre-packed meal and struggle to find a seat outside as the hot sun beats down on you. The tables are packed, and you might have to eat on the curb. Everything about this school year feels a bit odd, and the dining hall is no exception to this feeling.

“I wish we had more seats and different options for the food sometimes,” Teddy Meng (‘23) said.

The dining hall may not be the same, but students and the rest of the community are adapting to these changes to prioritize our community’s safety.

Before the COVID-19 regulations, students may have memories of sitting inside the Price Dining Hall laughing with their friends, grabbing a toasty pre-chapel bagel, or enjoying a heaping spoonful of the daily dessert together as a community.

“Before the pandemic, we opened a variety of stations to alleviate the busy rush of lunch hour, including the Chinese station and the noodle bar,” said Erasmo Rodriguez, executive chef of the Webb Schools. “We also [had] the sandwich bar, panini bar, salad bar, and pasta bar. This is how you serve 600 people in an hour and a half.”

Even before the pandemic, preparing food for more than 600 people had been a difficult task. The dining hall staff would arrive at 5 A.M. in the morning to prepare breakfast. Similarly, preparing lunch and dinner required two hours of work before the meals are served to students. With the COVID-19 restrictions, these challenges are only magnified.

“Now, we face the challenge because more work is required for doing the pre-pack work,” Armando Amezcua, food service director said. “We have to prepare 600 lunches with 10 staff members.”

Although self-serving is not and will not be an option in the near future due to COVID-19 protocols, the long lines in front of the dining hall have significantly shortened. Instead of serving all the students and faculty one by one, the pre-packed meals offer an easy grab-and-go solution, creating less work for the staff, reducing waiting time and keeping safe distances.

“Safety and sanitation are the main thing,” said Armando. “Everything has to be pre-packed and individually prepared to avoid contact with different people.”

In addition, pre-packaged desserts are a new obstacle. Before, students would walk up to the designated dessert table and serve themselves. However, due to the added protocol of no open food, dessert options are limited to ready-made snacks, or the staff needs to put in extra work to package new ones.

Because it is difficult to estimate the exact number of students and staff who would opt for one specific cuisine, it remains challenging for the dining hall staff to bring back other dining options. Nevertheless, like always, the main meal varies day to day.

“We try to diversify our cuisines and we have a very talented culinary team,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “We’ve served everything from Peruvian cuisine, British cuisine, Arabic cuisine, to Palestinian… You name it.”

“The dining hall now is not as different as from before,” Conrad Poon (‘23) said. “More choices during lunch would be better. Other than that, everything is fine.”

The dining hall staff are working hard to adjust to these changes, and they are open to community feedback whenever necessary.

Based on student feedback, the dining hall is now adjusting the menu and introducing snack options during the day, adding sandwiches as a lunch option, and continuing to serve small side-salads for lunch and dinner. Webb students should also be on the lookout for healthy snack packs and expanded fruit options with the implementation of the new menu items.

When the reintroduction of indoor dining happens, students can expect to see the self-serve juice stations and other beverage stations slowly open up again with added twists. Students can also anticipate the opening of the salad bar or sandwich station, as the dining hall staff is getting creative with different menu options.

“As soon as we see the numbers go down, we may be able to go back to our new normal,” Armando said. “I am hoping that by the end of the year we can eat inside the dining hall.”