Maria Sandoval is used to cooking for a crowd. On the average day as Director of Great Western Dining’s cafeteria at Seward County Community College, the trained chef prepares to feed more than 200 people.
These days, the number is down to about 30, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, state-government’s “stay at home” orders, and the college’s shift to remote learning measures.
“I’ve got about 25 kids still in the dorms, and I’ll keep feeding them as long as they need me,” Sandoval said. “It’s a pleasure to help them get through this time, to help them out.”
The reduction in meals served didn’t daunt Sandoval nearly as much as its domino effect on her team of employees.
“I had to pretty much lay off all my people, except for four, because of lack of work,” she said. The popular campus snack bar “Louie’s Place” is closed, and all events normally catered on campus by GWD have been cancelled, from civic club meetings to special events. The cafeteria is only serving dorm residents and campus employees who continue to work on site. The food service industry is accustomed to ups and downs based on the economy and the season, but this sudden shutdown is unprecedented and difficult to process, Sandoval said.
“It’s very heart-aching to experience.”
Sandoval’s student workers were among those laid off, and she remains in communication with them. The conversations have helped her remain tuned in to the student perspective.
“Honestly, I think they’re all pretty scared,” she said. “It’s a lot to take in, and they are young. With the positive test results (for COVID-19) in Seward County, it’s put some of them on edge.”
As a mother of an elementary-school student, Sandoval relies on the language of food to communicate care when she is at work, just as she does at home.
“For those dorm kids, we want to make sure they’re OK. I slide the menu under their doors every week, and they pick up the meals from the cafeteria. They all take extra fruit, gatorade and snacks, to hold them overnight.”
For her part, Sandoval’s routine now includes parking in the garage, taking her work clothes off in the laundry room, and going immediately to a hot shower and Epsom salt bath.
“I follow those protocol steps myself to minimize what I bring home,” she said. “I feel hopeful that as long as we all respect these new boundaries in place, maybe the ban will lift sooner and we could start delivering the meals we normally do, for daycares and off-campus sites, and get our catering back. It’s just going to take time.”
Until she knows what the new “normal” will be, Sandoval said she is glad to serve the remaining students.
“I’m here for them,” she said. “And that makes daily life more meaningful.”