By Brittney Rutherford, Campus Life

Pantry staples like flour, baking soda, salt and margarine are rarely served alone, but important ingredients for many recipes,  including ISU Dining’s iconic Carmelita bars.

The ISU Dining team is a lot like the ingredients of a favorite recipe, always working together to create something amazing.

When COVID-19 changed everything last year, they did just that. The team jumped in, thought ahead, adapted and stayed laser-focused on making sure ISU students were taken care of. In a way, they had to write their own recipe for responding to a pandemic, sometimes having to add a little more flour or chocolate to meet the needs of the ISU community.

Flour – Meeting (and exceeding) a basic need

Flour is pretty common in most cupboards. The norm for ISU Dining is serving a city the size of Grinnell, all their meals every day. Like everything, that changed in March. Instead of serving thousands, the team focused on quickly creating a new style of pickup service to make sure students who had to stay on campus had the ability to get meals and that staff stayed safe while preparing those meals.

Students also came back abruptly from study abroad trips and had to quarantine. The team knew students were scared as many people were trying to navigate the challenges of a pandemic. The dining team went beyond the basics and made sure the food deliveries were fresh, met all dietary needs and had some fun surprises in the boxes to brighten students’ day.

Baking Soda – A utility player

From cookies to toothpaste, baking soda is a versatile ingredient that’s adaptable for a lot of uses.

When classes moved online and many people transitioned to working from home, 95% of ISU Dining staff didn’t go anywhere. Students needed them. But, with the impacts of COVID-19, tracking and staffing had to be centralized for 220 full-time employees and over 1,300 student employees.

Two staff members, Terrasa Mouw-Grewell and Tori Tafoya, quickly stepped in to the roles of Emergency Staff Coordinators. Managing upwards of 150 emails a day and tackling the varying scenarios of COVID-19 cases all while ensuring staffing needs were met has been critical to the ability for ISU Dining to seamlessly continue serving students.They’ve also focused on ensuring staff receive continuous training on not only the normal food safety regulations, but any policy changes related to COVID-19.

Oats – Always prepared

Oats can sit in the back of a cupboard at home for a year without going bad, so you’re always prepared with a quick and hearty meal on hand. ISU Dining is one of the most prepared units on campus because of the logistics they have in place and their team members’ ability to think ahead and find solutions to potential problems.

COVID-19 had significant impacts on the supply chain of items that food-service operators depend on. Compostable to-go containers are just one of the many things that the dining team needed to serve students safely.

In early March, they ordered as many containers as they could and were ahead of the market in terms of securing what they needed to operate. From there, they connected directly with a manufacturer to ensure the supply chain stayed consistent and that students could get their food to go whenever they needed to.

During move in, the infamous derecho took out power. Immediately, the Emergency Management Coordinator stepped in and set up the logistics of quickly transporting food from 10 locations to semis that had been brought in to keep the food from spoiling. Managing during a pandemic is tough. Managing during a pandemic and a severe natural disaster without a loss of service to students is quite the feat.

Walnuts – crunch time

Supplies for creating physical barriers in places like restaurants and at service counters were tough to come by over the summer as businesses adapted to a new normal. Having these barriers was critical for serving students in the fall.

ISU Dining went in-house and leaned on the carpentry expertise of employee Nicholas “Tom” Dooley. He created barriers in dining rooms, offices and service counters using unique materials. His designs look like they’ve always been there and the structures can be removed without damaging the original furniture.

Dooley then took his carpentry skills a step further. Hundreds of chairs in ISU Dining’s second-largest dining center were over 10 years old and starting to look worn. But, they were structurally sound. Cooks, who are typically serving conference guests in the summer, were enlisted to help extend the life of the chairs.

They pivoted from making the perfect eggs benedict and were taught how to refinish wood. The cook team learned a new skill, saved the organization money by refinishing and not replacing the chairs, and they had immense pride in their work.

Chocolate – the sweet side

Helping someone else always warms your heart and ISU Dining is a team of helpers. With the food supply chain disrupted in March, Dining stepped in to assist Story County Emergency Management, United Way and other community organizations.

Their work with a Barilla pasta donation fed 2500 families and they helped transport three tons of product from the Food Bank of Iowa to local school districts. The team continues to warehouse and store items in partnership with community organizations to help the families of Story County.

Putting it All Together

Many people don’t think about the link between food and college. Connecting over a dish of ice cream with a new friend, experiencing foods from around the world, hanging out with a study group in a dining center and catching up with a colleague for coffee are all experiences ISU Dining has continued to provide for Iowa State throughout the pandemic.

It wasn’t easy. Fear, worry, stress and frustration all clouded by the ever-changing dynamics of COVID-19. But, the team never stepped down. They always stepped up and found ways to make this year a success for the many students that depend on the team for a hot, fresh and delicious meal every day.

It’s your turn! The Carmelitas recipe generations of Iowa Staters have come to love has been adapted so you can make it in your own kitchen.


  • 1 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour
  • 1 1/4 cup Oats (quick or rolled)
  • 1 cup + 3 tbsp light brown sugar
  • 3/4 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 14 tbsp margarine, melted
  • 3/4 cup caramel topping
  • 1/3 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 1/2 cups chocolate chips
  • 3/4 cup chopped walnuts


  1. Combine first listed flour with oatmeal, sugar, baking soda and salt in mixing bowl; mix well. Add melted margarine to flour mixture and mix well.
  2. Combine second listed flour and caramel topping; mix well. Add walnuts and chocolate chips, mix just to incorporate. Mixture will be very thick.
  3. Lightly press half of crumb mixture into a 9 x 13 pan. Do not pack. Drop caramel nut mixture randomly over crust. Spread evenly with metal spatula. Sprinkle with remaining crumb mixture.
  4. Bake at 325°F in rack oven for 15 to 20 minutes until golden brown.
  5. Cool bars and cut into portions

See the recipe in action with this video link.