As college campuses prepare to fully reopen in the wake of the pandemic, many of us can’t help but hope that life will return to the pre-Covid status quo. But research undertaken by Nutrislice indicates that some students’ eating habits may have changed for good—or at least for the foreseeable future.
One of the most important changes? Student reliance on on-campus foodservice. Many of the nearly 900 students we surveyed believe that they will be less reliant on on-campus dining options like dining halls and campus cafés than they were before the spring of 2020. And others, who have returned to campus, are already finding this to be true.
What can higher education foodservice providers understand about this shift, and what can be done to mitigate it? Let’s take a closer look at the numbers.
Students Say They Will (and Do) Rely Less on On-Campus Dining
Of the students we surveyed who have not yet returned to campus, two in five expect they will use on-campus dining options less than they did before the pandemic.
Data collected from students who have already returned indicate these conjectures may be correct. Students back on campus are frequenting on-campus foodservice locations more than their off-campus peers predict, but only just. Of this group, 31% are using on-campus dining less than they did before the pandemic.
Safety isn’t the Only Factor
One obvious potential culprit for students’ hesitancy about on-campus dining is the same concern that has defined the last year and a half: safety. Safety concerns were the most common reason cited by students who predicted that they would visit on-campus dining venues less often when they got back to school. There’s no doubt that, for some percentage of customers, the prospect of gathering in large numbers at dining halls and restaurants will be an alarming one for a long time to come.
But it’s not the full story.
Those with safety concerns are, it turns out, a relatively small minority of the overall student body. Of those who have not yet come back to campus, only 15% of students say they don’t have confidence that their colleges will take enough precautions to make them feel safe while using on-campus foodservice facilities. When it comes to students who are already back on campus, confidence is even higher. 78% of students who have returned believe their campus foodservice locations have taken enough precautions and successfully adapted to safer practices like contactless ordering.
So what’s the problem?
Options and Convenience May be Driving Students to Dine Off-Campus
Concerns about safety are certainly one part of the puzzle. And, luckily, dips in customer rates due to safety precautions will likely be temporary. But what accounts for changing habits of the rest of the student body?
When asked to explain what had prompted them to move away from on-campus dining options after coming back to campus, students brought up two themes in their open-ended responses again and again: options and convenience.
More than anything when it comes to food, students crave variety. Truncated menus due to the constraints of Covid-era foodservice may have pushed students to cast around for other options.
These days, students, like many of us, have become accustomed to turning to their phones when hunger strikes. They’re able to find all the information they need, order, and pay—all without leaving their dorm rooms.
What this Shift Means for You
As students increasingly look off-campus to fill their cravings, it's up to campus foodservice operators to show students that they can compete in the post-pandemic world.