School cafeterias and university dining halls provide excellent environments to introduce students to plant-based food options. From using whole grains and lentils as prominent ingredients in cafeterias to programs like Superfood of the Month and Meatless Mondays, plant-based foods are being offered to students in a number of ways.

Why are school cafeterias adding plant-based foods?

Plant-based food offer extraordinary benefits for people, animals, and the environment. Reasons for the transition to plant-based food options include:

Health benefits: Eating plant-based meals is a way to consume more nutrients, limit saturated fats, increase fruit and vegetable intake, and other behaviors that can have a positive influence on health problems like obesity and chronic diseases that are associated with diet.

Environmental impact: Plant-based diets are sustainable. The meat industry requires a tremendous amount of resources compared to the production of plant-based foods. The average household uses the same amount of water in a year as it takes to produce 10 pounds of steak. The United Nations Environmental Program has declared that “animal agriculture is an environmentally damaging industry that has brought us to the verge of catastrophe.”

Animal welfare: According to the Human Society, 4 out of 5 Americans are concerned by the treatment of animals in factory farms.

How can schools and universities incorporate plant-based foods into their dining services?

Offering plant-based meals in cafeterias is way to be inclusive to students who are already vegan or vegetarian. But, it’s also an advantage for other students who are not as interested or experienced with plant-based foods. Offering meat-free meals in schools makes it easier for students to taste and experiment with plant-based foods like whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and seeds so that they can become aware of the benefits and flavors.

At a Forward Food event the Humane Society held at Harvard University, speakers offered effective ways schools can encourage students to incorporate more plant-based food in their diets. Suggested solutions include:

  1. Get buy-in from food service staff about plant-based offerings through staff training and support.

  2. Offer students delicious and convenient plant-based foods options.

  3. Give students ways to choose what they eat. For example, cook and serve components of a dish separately (eg, meat, tomato sauce, and pasta). Let students select the components they want because when students choose what they want, they are more likely to eat what they choose.

    Grain Salad
  4. Show students that choosing plant-based foods doesn’t mean they need to stop eating all meat and dairy products. Harvard University provides their students with information about a spectrum of plant-based diets, which can include:
    Flexitarian — consciously consuming less meats
    Climatarian — making choices based on environmental impact (e.g., choosing locally-sourced foods)
    Pescatarian — eating fish but not eating meat
    Vegetarian — not eating fish or meat, but eating dairy products and eggs
    ​Vegan — not eating meat or food derived from animals (e.g., dairy or honey)

  5. Make it an experience they look forward to! Schools offer tastings, grain bowl bars (like a salad bar), and other ways to encourage students to learn about and try more types of food.

  6. Test foods out, and give students opportunities to provide feedback to the food service team. Students’ input can help fine-tune recipes to ensure flavors and appearance are appealing.

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