Safely serving cadets: Academy’s dining hall staff overcomes COVID-19 challenges to feed thousands

  • Published
  • By Ray Bowden
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Senior leaders at the Air Force Academy began the New Year by continuing to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic with a slew of safety measures and precautions to protect the health and safety of all at the school.

Earlier this year, nearly 4,000 cadets returned from their holiday break for the spring semester, a mass movement based on a comprehensive plan designed by the school’s pandemic math team relying on surveillance testing, quarantine and isolation facilities.

Lt. Gen. Richard Clark, the Academy’s superintendent, is visibly passionate when he describes his staff’s efforts to corral the pandemic and safely bring cadets back to school after their break.

“I cannot say how impressed I am with the resiliency and commitment of the cadets, faculty and staff,” he said. “This is our ‘new normal’ but we will win this battle. We will continue to combat this disease with science and our incredible medical professionals.”

Strict guidelines, continual testing and a safety measures effect every aspect of life at the Academy. Cadets attend class via online instruction and classroom learning, Plexiglas barriers in classrooms separate cadets and their faculty, and facemasks and social distancing are mandatory in public, including classrooms. Late last year, hundreds of cadets tested each week for COVID-19, in keeping with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Defense Department and state and El Paso County guidelines.

Clark’s “new normal” extends to the staff at day-today operations at Mitchell Hall, the school’s cavernous dining hall.

The Science of Food Management: Serving Hungry Cadets 80,000 Meals a Week
Feeding thousands of cadets three times a day, every day, seems a daunting accomplishment in itself, so it’s understandable if serving the entire cadet wing during a pandemic would seem very difficult at best and impossible at worst.

Beth Claude, Mitchell Hall’s director, said the logistical maneuvering needed to feed cadets safely is challenging, but she and her staff of 170 administrators, cooks, dietitians, food servers, material handlers, and others are up to the task.

The director said the staff has overcome the challenges of the pandemic, beginning in March when most underclassmen-and-women left the school to study online.

“It was surreal,” she said. “We worked through the early days of the pandemic, supporting the senior cadets who remained on campus.”  

Once all cadets returned for the fall semester in August, the Mitchell Hall crew prepared more than 200,000 meals for cadets restricted to their dormitories for two weeks, another safety measure. All the while, the staff continued serving meals to cadets in Mitchell Hall, at Jack’s Valley training area, and to cadets enrolled in the school’s flight and parachuting programs at the Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. Airfield.

“The efforts of the staff in supporting each week’s meals are incredible,” Claude said. “There’s a science to food management. We have to plan today for the meals we’ll serve in eight weeks.”  

Each month, $2 million of food arrives at the dining hall’s loading docks for inventory, storage and cooking. The staff prepares and serves more than 80,000 meals each week, and any dining in the nearly 2-acre cadet dining room takes place behind Plexiglas shields.

“Before the addition of Plexiglas, to seat the cadet wing, we cleaned and reset the dining room several times each night,” Claude said. “It’s a difficult balance to make these changes and serve 1,000 cadets who arrive at once for dinner, but we’ve navigated that road as best as possible. Our number 1 priority is keeping cadets and our staff safe.”   

Material Handler Michael Holland: ‘Cadets Deserve the Best’ 

Michael Holland is a material handler at Mitchell Hall.

“You have to be organized and ready to change direction on a whim and without missing a beat,” he said. “Whether working in the warehouse where non-perishables are stored, in the dairy coolers, meat coolers, freezers, frozen vegetables, or bakery, you have to be organized and flexible.”

Holland is one of eight material handlers to receive, inventory and distribute food in Mitchell Hall.

“We make sure the right food is ordered and received at the right time, stored and itemized the right way, and delivered to the right people at the right time,” he said while showing off four industrial freezers, each the size of a three-to-four-car garage. “A lot is expected of material handlers.”

Holland, a former security forces Airman and Army Guard helicopter mechanic, has been on the Mitchell Hall staff for 20 years. He’s been a material handler since 2014, a role he calls the “cornerstone of Mitchell Hall’s mission to feed cadets.”

“We order and receive the food, and we’re the quality controllers,” he said. “It has to go through us before it gets to the cadets. It’s as if I’m in security forces again. To get to cadets you have to first go through me.”

Holland is not joking: It’s common, he said, for security forces Airmen at the base to patrol the building.

“We take food security seriously,” he said. “That’s part of what we do too.” 

Holland’s favorite responsibility as a material handler is delivering meals to cadets at the airfield.

“I’ve gotten to know the cadets and some of their instructors and I enjoy the smiles and ‘thank yous’ I get when I restock them with fresh meals and drinks,” he said. “Cadets deserve the best and I strive to give them that.” 

The material handler said the biggest challenges he faces as a professional and a family man is similar to what many anyone might face after living with a pandemic for several months.

“My biggest challenge is ‘burn out,’” he said. “We all deal with the fact that we’re a mission-essential operation and no matter what happens, cadets come first, especially in this COVID situation. The cadets need us and yet so do our families. We get tired too.”

Holland relies on his coworkers for resilience and support.

“Having great teammates and a strong and understanding supervisor helps a great deal,” he said. “It reminds me that I’m not in this dugout by myself. We lean on each other for the support and encouragement we need to keep up this fight.”

Holland and Claude both say the staff is dedicated to giving its all to cadets. This dedication extends to dining hall volunteers who spend the night at the Academy to serve the cadets in the morning if winter weather keeps their coworkers from getting to work, Claude said.

Food Server Brian King: ‘I get to serve the best of the best
Brian King, a former Army cook who served a tour of duty at Fort Leavenworth Disciplinary Barracks, is on the dining hall’s roster of food servers.

“At Leavenworth, I served the worst of the worst,” he said. “Here, I serve the best the military has to offer. I get to serve the best of the best.”  

King said he enjoys serving thousands of cadets each day.

“Some people think it’s challenging. I think it’s fun,” he said.

King works five days a week, Thursday through Monday. His workday begin at 5 a.m. when he joins other food servers to box an average of 1,300 breakfast meals for cadets made by cooks who start prepping meals at 3 a.m.

Breakfast begins at 5:30 a.m., with cadets filing into the hall at intervals of six feet, in face masks, taking a meal and leaving.

“We call these ‘touch and go’s,’” King said.

King and his coworkers stop serving breakfast at 8:30 a.m. and start prepping for lunch, the only meal cadets eat inside the hall, barring special events. Lunch starts at 11:15 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. for the school’s 40 cadet squadrons.

“We have two cycles feeding 20 squadrons each in 15-minute sessions,” he said.

King welcomes any effort to promote the health of his coworkers and cadet.

“I feel very safe coming to work,” he said.

The Army veteran and his coworkers often chat with cadets.

“We’re interested in their thoughts. We’re interested in them,” King said. “We ask their opinion on the food, what they think about the Plexiglas, how they’re doing,” King said. “We want to know what we can do to help.”

As a senior cadet, Cadet 1st Class Caelan Barranta is more than acquainted with Mitchell Hall.

“It’s incredibly hard to serve 4,000 cadets three times a day,” she said.

Barrenta said finding a way to eliminate boxed-lunches, and improved variety of snacks and meals served at Mitchell Hall are the result of conversations between Claude’s staff and cadets.  

“If anyone has demonstrated how to work around COVID-19, it’s definitely Mitchell Hall’s staff,” she said.

King said he’s happy serving cadets in any circumstance.

“I like working here because of the people, the cadets – our future leaders,” he said. “That’s an amazing thing.”

3,000 pounds of Turkey
Mitchell Hall, a nondescript four-story building large enough to serve as an aircraft hangar, is named in honor of Air Force icon Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell.

“The building was constructed along with the rest of the cadet area and was operational in 1958 to serve the class of ’59,” said Duane Boyle, the academy’s chief engineer.

The dining area is spacious enough to seat 4,000 cadets at once but public health restrictions initially shrunk that capacity by 75%, Claude said. The Mitchell Hall director said “massive changes” were made to accommodate those health restrictions while serving cadets.

Claude said Mitchell Hall’s staff is diligent about developing and improving the cadets’ dining experience, “making adjustments to menus and how we can better serve cadets and return to some degree of normalcy.”

Noting the rising number of coronavirus cases across the U.S. during the fall and reviewing information from the pandemic math team, Clark and his senior staff decided to keep cadets on campus during their Thanksgiving break.

“I cannot in good conscience allow thousands of cadets to travel across the country and the world when we’re in such a precarious time,” he said when breaking the news to cadets in October. “Please know that we will do everything we must to get the class of 2021 to graduation while ensuring the health and wellbeing of all cadets, staff, faculty and families.”

Clark, his senior leaders and the entire cadet wing, celebrated Thanksgiving together in Mitchell Hall with a full-course holiday dinner hosted at Mitchell Hall. Cadets ate in two 20-minutes settings.

Claude said the event was the first Thanksgiving dinner Mitchell Hall hosted for the entire cadet wing.

“We’re usually closed for the Thanksgiving break but we were thrilled with how it turned out,” she said. “The full Mitchell Hall team worked for several days to put the event together. Chef Jamie Kuzo cooked and prepped for two days to make homemade cranberry sauce, stuffing and more than 3,000 pounds of Turkey. The entire Mitchell Hall team worked Thanksgiving Day apart from their families to share a special holiday with our Academy family.”

Holland said preparing a Thanksgiving dinner for 4,000 cadets was an “all hands on deck” affair.   

“We literally had a room filled with staff members cutting pumpkin pies,” Holland said. “It was amazing.”

At the dinner, Clark shared the dining room with cadets, his family and senior staff.

During the holiday, Clark, Nate Pine - the Academy’s athletic director, Chief Master Sergeant Sarah Sparks - the school’s command chief and other senior officials at the school, visited cadets staying off base in local hotels. Some cadets, including Falcons’ football athletes, live off base to promote the health of the cadet wing and teams they’ll compete. 

Col. Brian Hartless, commander of the 10th Air Base Wing – the Academy’s host unit – is ultimately responsible for Mitchell Hall.

“What most impresses me about the Mitchell Hall staff is their daily dedication and optimism in the face of this pandemic,” he said. “They’ve managed to adapt their operations to not only adjust to those restrictions, but also overcome any limitations. I can’t thank them enough for their dedication and hard work.”

“Efficiently serving more than 4,000 cadets three meals a day is certainly an impressive feat in ‘normal’ situations,” Hartless said, “but these days? I have no reservations when I use the word ‘amazing’ to describe what they do for the Academy and for cadets.”

Whether serving cadets on a daily basis or throwing an enormous Thanksgiving bash during a pandemic, Claude seems to take it in stride.

“It’s what we do,” she said.

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