Camera eats first: building virtual community through food

Pandemic restrictions have greatly altered every aspect of campus life at Tufts, including the dining experience. As a result, several Instagram accounts have popped up this year that post pictures and reviews of meals at Tufts, with some sharing specific foods, such as broccoli and salads, and others providing a general overview of campus cuisine.

As of February 21, Carmichael and Dewick-MacPhie dining centers have opened for in-person dining at 25 percent capacity. However, the majority of food is still pre-ordered to-go. First-year students Emily Sverak and Sarah Pillone created their Instagram account, @tastingtufts, as a result of these COVID-19-era Tufts Dining policies. They first posted in September 2020, shortly after students returned to campus. Sverak said, “We realized that since you have to order everything online, you can’t see what you’re ordering, and you don’t really know what looks good. So we thought it’d be helpful for students to post pictures, and say what we think of the food.”

Paolo Padova, a sophomore, also noted this difference in the ways that Tufts students talk about dining. “The stereotypical Tufts thing is [asking] are you a Carm person or Dewick person, and now that has changed a bit … Now, people relate through food by talking about what’s good where, which I think wasn’t [as] relevant last year,” he said.

While some accounts take a more serious approach, others use humor in their reviews. Pillone said, “It’s fun to see just a joking post, and also a genuine review. It’s definitely been nice to have that on social media when we can’t interact with others in person.”

@tuftsbroccoli is one such account with a more humorous spin on Tufts dining. Sophomore Sean Lim created this account initially as a joke between friends at the beginning of the Spring 2021 semester. Lim said, “I feel like I eat broccoli every single day on Tufts’ campus … And [my friends and I thought] wouldn’t it be fun if we made something to review it?”

Padova also believes in the importance of humor in these accounts. “It’s like a little running joke … and that creates a stronger sense of community,” he said. This feeling of community is something that can be difficult to find during the COVID-19 pandemic. “It can definitely be lonely, and you spend a lot of time in your room, and you see a lot less people,” said Padova. 

Isolation from the pandemic is another part of what inspired Lim to create @tuftsbroccoli. “I was really stressed and upset and spending time in quarantine but [@tuftsbroccoli] was kind of a stress relief for me … People find a lot of joy from it.”

These accounts have been a bright spot for many students during the pandemic. Lim said, “I think there is a need for some sort of socially connected … interaction more than ever now …  We’re all in this together, really, and Tufts Broccoli is just … another Tufts kid that’s trying to make the most out of his time here in college in these weird times.”

Another food account, @tuftspotatotriangles, was created in the fall of 2018 and is currently run by juniors Leila Skinner and Bridget Wall. Although the account existed before the pandemic, it is now part of a larger community of food accounts helping to connect Tufts students to one another.  

Skinner and Wall asked their followers to send in their own pictures of potato triangles, creating an opportunity for Tufts community members to participate. Padova is one such student that has been featured on @tuftspotatotriangles. “My friend took a picture of me and sent it to them, and they featured me … it was pretty embarrassing, to be honest … but it was also exciting,” he said.

Skinner said, “During hard times, food can be a unifying force, and everyone’s in it together. And it’s a reminder to celebrate the little things, enjoy each other’s company, and be grateful for all the dining hall workers who help keep us fed every single day.”

Kevin Zhang, a sophomore, noted the difficulty that the pandemic has added to food preparation for Tufts Dining workers. “Tufts Dining [is] operating under significantly different conditions … I started working [at Hodgdon Food-on-the-Run] fairly recently and they’ve really emphasized how different this is from regular semesters … The pandemic has really made food preparation more difficult for the Tufts Dining staff because it’s logistically a lot more complicated to track incoming orders … But they’re doing their best,” he said. 

Members of the Tufts community beyond current students have also interacted with the accounts. Wall said, “Someone’s dad who follows the account … DM’d us homemade potato triangles. It’s actually so funny … it’s just cute.”

The popularity of these accounts has grown so much that their audience invites participation from recently-admitted students, helping to introduce them to the Tufts community. Lim said, “A bulk of our followers are actually from the class of ‘25, so incoming freshmen, which is really exciting because you get DMs and stuff from people who’d be like, ‘Oh, I’m an incoming first year and this is such a useful account … you make it seem like Tufts people are just so funny, and I’m so excited to come’ … Especially for graduating seniors in high school, I could imagine that this is not how they expected senior year to pan out. So it’s kind of like a beacon of hope, something to look forward to.”

In a time when so much of life has moved online, these Tufts food review accounts have created an online space for the Tufts dining experience. Pillone said, “Since we can’t really eat together in big groups … I feel like we’re kind of eating together … And so even though we’re all in different classes, locations, and we don’t interact with each other in person … we all have similarities, by the fact that we’re eating this food and we can comment on it together and taste it together.”

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