Foodservice companies help unusual places get good vegan menus
Like a lot of her classmates, Kirsten Gersbeck prefers a plant-based diet. But until recently, the sophomore at the University of New Haven had few vegan dining options on campus.
“For me, I see it as a healthy food option, so when it’s available, I choose to eat it,” says Gersbeck, a criminal justice major.
But then Jovan Bloise, a liaison between the students and the university’s food service provider, Sodexo, got involved and helped persuade the college to go vegan.
While traveling, vegan dining options are hard to find unless you prepare food yourself
Editor’s note: This is not really a travel piece but it focuses on the development of vegan options for eating. When traveling, many vegans who eschew meat, fish, poultry, and dairy to focus on a plant-based diet have problems finding vegan dining options. This post focuses on how colleges and Sodexco are filling the vegan vacuum at colleges and universities in America. Recently, I had a wonderful vegan meal at the Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, Italy, near Campo Santa Margherita. The dining world is changing across the planet.
My personal vegan quest was an effort to lower cholesterol without taking pills. Others are shifting to plant-based diets to save the environment.
“I was hearing that we didn’t have a lot of options for people who follow a vegan diet,” Jovan said. “Students said they felt like an afterthought — and not a main priority.”
The University of New Haven is at the vanguard of a national trend. The latest PETA Vegan Report Card, which grades schools on plant-based dining options, found the number of vegan-friendly college campuses is at an all-time high. The number of schools that earned an “A” or “B” grade peaked at 709, compared to just 189 when the report card debuted in 2013, according to the organization.
Standouts on PETA’s Dean’s List include MIT, the University of Florida, and the University of Colorado Denver. The animal rights organization lauded those colleges for offering diverse entrees such as vegan ravioli, mac and cheese, and waffles.
It is easier than ever to find vegan dining options in restaurants — but still difficult
A recent Nielsen study found that 39 percent of Americans are actively trying to eat more plant-based foods. But they’re not going for traditional plant-based options like tofu or rice. Innovation is booming in the plant-based food space, with an array of alternatives. (Did you catch the vegan pork announcement at CES this week?)
“The increasing trend in plant-based foods can be seen in restaurants and food markets across the country,” says Sara Patton, a clinical dietician at the Deborah Heart and Lung Center. “Some of the biggest drivers for this trend include health, environmental and ethical concerns. Plant-based diets have been shown to reduce the risk of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and obesity.”
Many have their own reasons for adopting a vegan diet, from health concerns to recent news about the benefits of a plant-based diet. Sodexo and the University of New Haven, for example, conducted a comprehensive review of their menu before adding more plant-based food choices. But there are challenges — and rewards — ahead.
We just finished the “Year of the Vegan”
Veganism is on the rise in the general population. The number of American consumers identifying as vegan grew from 1 percent to 6 percent between 2014 and 2017, according to GlobalData. That’s a 600 percent increase. A quarter of Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 say they are vegans or vegetarians, according to The Economist, which declared 2019 the year of the vegan.
“There’s an unprecedented level of awareness around both the ethical and environmental implications of our dietary choices,” says Esther Ardagh-Ptolomey, founder of Kindred Traveller, a business specializing in vegan and ethical travel.
Recent documentaries such as “Game Changers,” have also changed perceptions of the plant-based diet, particularly among college students.
“They’ve challenged the stereotype of vegans as hemp wearing, tree-hugging hippies, instead of representing the wide demographic veganism encompasses,” she adds.
How a food service company can help a college go vegan. Others can’t be far behind.
Bloise approached Sodexo about redoing its menu. It already offered vegan lunch options for one of its cafeteria stations. The choices, which rotate daily, range from Indian-style curries and Asian stir-frys to Mexican and Caribbean style dishes. Students could choose from a selection of plant-based meat alternatives, including seitan crumbles, tofu, beans, and legumes.
But going vegan at the university cafeterias meant a full rethink of the menus. It started with breakfast, where Bloise asked Sodexo to offer omelets made with an egg substitute.
“We also added vegan bacon and sausages so vegans could have a hot, old fashioned breakfast,” he says.
Sodexo also added vegan mayo and vegan cheeses to its lunch lineup, allowing students to make fully vegan sandwiches. Vegan cookie dough found its way on the dessert menu. And, of course, there were vegan chicken nuggets.
“The vegans were really pleased with our changes,” says Bloise, who became a vegan himself during the project . “They thanked us for going above and beyond to make sure they felt heard and attended to like everyone else.”
Gersbeck noticed the changes immediately. The vegan chicken nuggets were a standout.
“They are definitely a fan favorite. Even people who aren’t vegan like them,” she said.
Students see a “positive impact” of a plant-based diet
Gersbeck is in good company. Bree Sheree became a vegan two years ago while she was a college student. She’d been inspired by documentaries like “What the Health” and “Forks Over Knives,” and she saw veganism as a way to improve her health. But at college, the only options for her were the salad bar — an easy but boring choice with little protein.
“I ended up feeling better and was able to drop 10 pounds in 3 months,” she recalls. “It was difficult to adjust to new foods at first, but over time my taste buds adjusted and I can’t see myself ever going back to eating animal products.”
Sheree also started a food blog called Bree’s Vegan Life, which publishes plant-based recipes.
“I now see the positive impact being vegan can make on the environment, and I also consider the lives of animals. I realized that I can eat everything I want and need without causing harm to any sentient beings,” she adds.
Sticking to a strict plant-based diet is not as easy as it looks
At some schools, keeping a strict plant-based diet can be difficult, if not impossible. Many colleges still have traditional animal-based food offerings. And high schools are practically vegan food deserts.
At least that’s the impression of Laurice Wardini, a 21-year-old writer who has been a vegan for the last three years. She’d wanted to become a vegan at 16, but found it difficult because she was surrounded by omnivores.
Her college offered few choices, she adds.
“There weren’t many options at all,” she says. “It was even worse when I had tried to go vegan in high school. I absolutely think there needs to be more vegetarian and vegan options in schools.”
Serving vegan food is part of good customer service — and more
It turns out that adding more plant-based meals makes sense — at least from a customer service perspective. And you can’t just cart in a tray of brown rice. It has to be carefully planned and implemented. A lot like what happened at the University of New Haven.
Bloise, the culinary liaison, says he didn’t realize the significance of creating more vegan food choices until the University of New Haven recognized his efforts. But the best part about his college offering vegan dining choices was the reaction from students, he says.
“They would stop me in the halls to thank me,” he says. “They said I’d showed them things that they never knew about being vegan.”
Serving your customers plant-based foods may have other benefits beyond happier customers. If a vegan diet improves their health, then they’ll be there for you in the future. And for companies — and colleges — that could leave a lasting legacy.
Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. Read more of Christopher’s articles here.