WSU grocery program a safe alternative for employees

WESTFIELD — Westfield State University Dining Services has created a temporary grocery delivery program for employees to use during the coronavirus  pandemic instead of heading to the market themselves—thereby reducing the number of people in public buildings and also protecting the health and safety of store employees.
“We’re trying to make it easier and safer for Westfield State employees to get basic groceries and to eat nutritious meals without risking going into a store,” said Mary Reilly, executive chef of Westfield State University Dining Services. “We’re also trying to look out for the people who work for the grocery stores and try to keep up with the demand.”
Experts say it’s best to go grocery shopping as infrequently as possible; this reduces exposure risk and helps reduce the number of people in a store. It’s still important, however, to have enough food to provide nutritious meals for one’s household, as eating well is vital for staying healthy. Grocery store employees are also putting their health and safety on the line to get essential goods to customers.

Westfield State University Dining Services Executive Chef Mary Reilly sorts food for deliveries ordered by Westfield State employees. (WSU DINING SERVICES DIRECTOR BILL CONNOR PHOTO)

Almost a month after the stay-at-home advisory was issued, stressed customers anxiously enter stores with their faces covered with protective cloths and their hands wrapped in disposable gloves. New Massachusetts Department of Public Health guidance, released April 7, requires that each grocery store limit occupancy to 40 percent of its maximum permitted occupancy level. Customers notice many shelves remain bare; items are still being hoarded by others. Tissue and toilet paper are picked up as quickly as the shelves are restocked, as are frozen vegetables, flour, and chicken. Purchase limits are placed on eggs and other items.
“We are in unprecedented times,” said Reilly, who is also publisher of the popular culinary magazine Edible Pioneer Valley, which is dedicated to the region’s local food and the people who grow, raise, and prepare it. “The coronavirus has changed how we all live, work, and interact. One area we know has been difficult for all people is easy access to food. Stores have been wiped clean of basic supplies leaving many without basic needs for their families.
“It was clear that our fellow employees were having trouble finding groceries, and doing so safely,” she added. “We are temporarily providing this emergency service to our faculty and staff in an effort to keep us all safe and nourished.”
Dining Services is offering Westfield State employees several packages to choose from based on themes: breakfast, basics, pantry basics, pizza party. The week of April 6, for example, Easter and Passover packages were available. Order deadlines vary by week; once an order is placed, Chef Reilly contacts the customer for payment information and to set up a time for contact-free pickup at Westfield State’s Dining Commons. Chef Reilly is also able to assist community members looking to purchase larger bulk orders.
Examples of bags available for order:
– the Bagel Sandwich Bag contains: 1 dozen bagels, 1 dozen eggs, 1 lb. of bacon, 2 cups of plain cream cheese, 1 lb. of butter, and 1 cup of jam;
– the Rise and Shine Bag contains: 1 lb. of Sun Coffee Roasters coffee or 24 Teatulia tea bag assortment, and 1 quart of half and half;
– the Grocery Bag contains: one loaf of white bread, 1 lb. of American cheese, 1 lb. of butter, 3 pounds of pasta, 3 quarts of marinara sauce, 8 oz. of Parmesan cheese, 2 lbs. of ground beef, 3.5 lbs. of chicken breast, three bunches of lettuce, 1 pint of cherry tomatoes, 2 lbs. of onions, four cans of beans, 3 lbs. of white rice, and 4 lbs. of potatoes;
– the Brownie Kit contains all the ingredients for a 9×13 pan of brownies, including brownie mix, eggs, and canola oil;
– the Pizza Party Bag contains enough ingredients for two large pizzas: dough, sauce, mozzarella cheese, and pepperoni;
– and the “Winner Winner, Chicken Dinner” Bag contains one 3.5-lb. whole chicken, four cups of mashed potatoes, and one bunch of broccoli.
Boston-based food supplier Katsiroubas Bros. has launched Katsiroubas Cares Packages and is working with Westfield State Dining Services to offer boxes with basic, nourishing produce—enough to feed two to four people. Boxes feature items from three categories: fruit, vegetables, and greens. Each box has three-to-five items from each category and rotates based on what items are available and in season.
Westfield State employees are excited about this opportunity, according to Chef Reilly. Thus far, approximately 64 employees have ordered groceries through Westfield State Dining Services, up from 28 the previous week, she said. One staff member, who wished to remain anonymous, placed an order and said she was pleased with the abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables. She received avocados, onions, corn on the cob, apples, asparagus, cilantro, lemons, limes, spinach, two varieties of lettuce, among other items. With the avocados, cilantro, onions, and limes, she made a delicious avocado toast for breakfast one day last week.
“I’m just thankful I don’t have to brave the store at this time,” she told NewsWise on April 8.
Leah Nielsen, associate professor of creative writing, shared that the program is reasonably priced, convenient, and—for her—the safest option. She said that on April 11 she used the carrots, celery, and potatoes from her produce box to make lentil soup.
“As someone with multiple health issues, I can’t risk going to the grocery store or sending my husband there,” she said. “We had been ordering groceries and having them delivered. Because it’s impossible to tell who has handled produce on any given day, we’ve stuck to frozen fruits and vegetables. It’s a relief to get fresh produce (a pineapple!) that I know has been handled by very few people who are taking every necessary precaution to get food to us safely.”
Professor Nielsen was also planning to try a new cooking technique: pickling.
“Another thing I love about getting a box of fresh produce is that it forces me to be creative and to try new foods,” she said. “I would never buy a bag of peppers to pickle, but I can’t wait to try them. Thank you to Chef Mary and the Dining Commons team for their hard work on our orders; we are grateful for all they have done to help the campus community at this time.”
Stephen Lee, director of clinical education in Westfield State’s physician assistant program, praised the program, Chef Reilly, and the Dining Services staff.
“During these challenging times, it is wonderful to see people coming together to help each other and their community,” he said. “These days, it’s difficult to find good produce; however, the box I received was filled with ample vegetables and fruit that our family will definitely enjoy. Thanks to Chef Mary and the Dining Services team, we will be able to nourish our bodies with healthy, delicious food.”
Other feedback has been equally positive, according to Chef Reilly.
“Some people have told me they are thankful for this program as groceries are becoming increasingly difficult to come by, that the program helps the staff stay engaged, the campus community is enriched with this program,” she said, adding the following quip, “One person told me that when the pandemic is over they won’t know how to grocery shop anymore.”
This temporary program for only employees reflects the mission of Westfield State Dining, according to Chef Reilly.
“Westfield State Dining is a part of the greater Westfield State University community,” she said. “As with all of our community, our first priority is caring for our students by providing them with nutritional and delicious meals. However, we are a strategic partner to the University and our fellow employees. This emergency program is a way to provide a valuable service to our campus community during this stressful, unprecedented time.”

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