A new study released shows that one simple change in institutions can make a big impact.
The study was conducted by Food for Climate League and in partnership with Better Food Foundation, Sodexo, and Boston College. It sought to determine the impact of serving plant-based meals as the “default” at Tulane University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Lehigh University.
Making plant-based meals the default refers to individuals being served the plant-based meal automatically and having to ask for an animal-based option, instead of the other way around. This strategy helps nudge behavioural change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while still providing consumers choice and keeping consumer satisfaction.
Key findings from the study:
24% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions per day
The number of plant-based options served increased from 30% – 81.5%
Making plant-based dishes the default has been shown to be an effective strategy for widespread behaviour change across schools and also other institutions. Another study found that when plant-based is the default instead of part of a separate menu, individuals are 56% more likely to choose that option. For example, in New York City hospitals where plant-based is the default, over 50% of eligible patients are choosing the plant-based option.
“Having plant-based foods isn’t a buzz or trend, it’s a need and demand that we deliver with creativity and flavour,”
said Brett Ladd, CEO for the Sodexo US Campus Division.
Please note while reading that UBC uses the term plant-based to describe food from plants as well as vegetarian foods such as dairy and eggs. This is different from Plant University’s definition that plant-based refers to food made from plants such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes, and does not include animal-based foods like meat, dairy, and eggs.
The time is right for institutions to take a culinary plunge into the plant-based world, following the lead of trailblazers like David Speight, Executive Chef and Culinary Director at the University of British Columbia.
In 2017 David and his team authored UBC’s Food Visions and Values, in which they outlined their commitment to advancing plant-based diets and reducing the amount of animal products they were offering to students in campus dining halls.
Taking the First Steps
David knew his staff needed more training when it came to plant-based cooking, so one of the first things they did was host Canada’s first ever Forward Food Conference with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). This took place in 2017, and was a two-day hands-on workshop led by HSUS chefs. It included 10 UBC chefs, as well as 10 other chefs from the City of Vancouver, the City of Whistler and University of Victoria.
“For two days we cooked a whole bunch of wonderful meals with no animal proteins or dairy anywhere to be found,” David says. “It was a bit of an ‘Aha!’ moment for our chefs to understand how great plant-based food can be. There are so many products on the marketplace these days that really open up the door for more plant-based cooking. So that was the starting point.”
Once the conference was over the UBC Food Services team started setting targets for plant-based offerings within the residence dining operations.
“When we started, we were around 20 percent plant-based—simply, I would say, to fulfil an obligation to cater to our vegan students,” David says. They needed to change the mindset, he explains, and the way they approached it was to make sure that they weren’t just offering substitutes for vegetarians and vegans.
“We decided we were going to make great-tasting plant-based dishes, and not just for vegans, but for everybody. So, we set a target of 40 per cent by 2019, and we achieved that.”
This year they have a new target of 60 percent plant-based offerings, including 30 percent vegan.
“We achieved that on our menu grid by making sure that each station has two different menu choices— one that contains animal proteins, and one that is vegetarian and/or vegan. In addition, one of our stations in each location is a vegetarian station, and that one has exclusively vegetarian and vegan options. This year, we’ve also looked more closely at the vegan aspect of that ratio because we were challenged last year because there weren’t enough vegan dishes included. So, this year we’ve made a commitment to having 50 per cent of that 60 per cent—in total 30 per cent of our overall offerings—to be fully vegan.”
Inspiring Plant-Based Choices
In the past year David and his team have been working with Health Canada on strategies to encourage students to make more plant-based selections. It has been a very useful process, he says.
“Some things we already knew, but some things were good learning, like highlighting the plant-based option right at the top of the menu.”
They also moved away from descriptors using the words vegan and vegetarian and now use icons instead. They did this so people who don’t identify as vegan or vegetarian don’t feel that these dishes are not for them.
“It’s just a great tasting dish and it just happens to be vegan…we stepped away from calling things, for example, Vegetarian Shepherd’s Pie and we might call it Moroccan Sweet Potato Shepherd’s Pie instead.”
Another change they made was how they were approaching recipe development.
“When we first started, if we had Butter Chicken on the menu, our chefs would maybe do a Tofu Butter Chicken, but I tried to change that mindset. I wanted these dishes to be great dishes that stand on their own, not just alternatives to the meat-based dishes.”
The Impetus Behind the Action
“We’ve always been challenged by students,” David says. But there are two main reasons UBC Food Services started, and continue, on this plant-based journey.
“One is to satisfy the demands of people who choose a vegan diet, but mainly it’s about the planet and public health. We’ve got a really strong sustainability department at UBC, and we’ve worked closely with them on some of these targets. I firmly believe that this is the future of food, and that we have to change the way we’re eating if we want to have sustainable diets for the future.
“The other thing is that from a chef’s perspective, [it’s easier for us to] buy high quality plants and vegetables than high quality meat. Buying organic grass-fed meat products is just not going to work with our budgets, but I can afford to buy organic produce…so from that perspective, we’re actually providing a better-quality meal with our plant-based dishes.”
But What About the Protein?
All this progress doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been any pushback. But as part of UBC, they have some powerful academic backup.
“We have partnered with the School of Population and Public Health on our campus to ensure that we’re what we’re saying is vetted by the academic portion of our university,” David says. “We’ve done workshops with them, and we have two dieticians on staff for UBC Food Services who can explain the nutritional benefits. We do get a lot of student athletes who claim that they need ‘X’ amount of protein, and they worry that it’s not coming from the plant-based dishes, so our dietitians can work with them and show them how they can achieve what they’re looking for, and still reduce the amount of meat that they eat.”
For the first time this year, David says, they have had student feedback saying they need more meat on the menu.
“I take that as a compliment because we’ve heard for years that there’s not enough plant-based menu items. And we’ve never before heard a complaint from a student looking for more meat. That tells me that the shift we’re making is real. I don’t want anybody to feel like they’re not getting what they need, but I’m much happier to hear somebody looking for more meat than the consistent, ‘There’s not enough vegan dishes on our menu.’ The tide is turning a little bit.”
Words of Advice
Since they started on this path in 2017 the learning and tweaking has been constant, David says. But the sharing of lessons, recipes and strategies has been a key part of their success in moving their plant-strong focus forward.
“One of the great things about working in the university environment is the culture sharing across universities. Unlike restaurants or the private sector, we’re not competing for the same guests. We all have our own captive campuses with our own students, so there is an incredible amount of sharing.
The first piece of advice he would offer to other institutions wanting to make these types of changes would be reach out and talk to somebody who’s already doing it, he says.
“We, as UBC, offer that all the time. The way I look at it is, we’re making great change here in Vancouver, and in Kelowna as well. But wouldn’t it be great if [universities in other provinces] also did the same thing —now we’re really scaling up!
“The other thing I would say is don’t be afraid to make mistakes. We certainly did, and we’re still learning. A prime example is we opened a brand new dining hall in 2016. And we were so proud because right in the central point we had a station that we called Vegetarian Kitchen. It’s in wrought iron—it would take construction to literally change the name of that station. [It didn’t take long before] we realized that we probably should have called it something else. But we’re learning and it’s okay to make mistakes.
“And finally, reach out to organizations like the Vancouver Humane Society, or get involved in something like the Forward Food Conference…That was a great opportunity for us as a starting point to educate ourselves and learn that, indeed, we can make great-tasting dishes without using animal proteins. Then set some targets. You’ve got to start somewhere so baseline where you are now and set targets for next year and the year after that. Start small and challenge yourself to continue to increase those targets.”
This is the future of food, David says. He sees the desire for it among students, and anticipates that the demand for plant-based offerings is only going to continue to grow.
“We also work with UBC Sustainability and they are challenging us to be 80 per cent plant based by 2025. I think personally that that is a realistic target, and something we should strive for…but at this point that’s an ongoing conversation.”
What the Students Want
“We continue to offer more, and they continue to ask for more, so my advice to other institutions is don’t be scared to make the plunge and go for it. The demographics of students are changing, and they’re challenging us to do more and more every year. It is the direction that I think the students would love to see all Canadian university campuses go towards.”
It is said that we tend to be as healthy as those we spend the most time with. This is one reason why encouraging the consumption—and enjoyment—of nutritious plant-based foods in the classroom can be such a powerful influence.
As a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and Community Educator I have delivered a number of plant-based workshops in schools, in partnership with teachers, and sometimes parent helpers. Though there are almost always students who vehemently declare at the beginning of the class that they “hate all vegetables,” when they are invited to help make the food, and see how tasty and vibrant it looks, they can rarely resist taking a bite. Even the most reluctant veggie eaters are often won over by simple, colourful plant-based dishes that they have had a hand in making.
Helping students make connections between what they’re eating, their own health, planetary health, and compassion for non-human animals can arm them with wisdom that will last long past their school days.
Inviting a qualified guest into the classroom is one way to bring this type of information to students. However, there are lots of ways to work plant-based learning into classroom curriculum or the school day on a regular basis too.
3 ways to bring plant-based learning into the classroom
1) Incorporate regular food preparation and cooking in the classroom
Most kids love to eat, and many love to cook or help prepare food—especially if it involves getting their hands dirty! Exposing children to healthy, tasty food can have a huge impact, particularly when it is done consistently and over time. Keeping the recipes simple and low tech makes it easy to implement these types of lessons more often. Massaged Kale Salad is a recipe that I have made with many groups of children, and they love it because they get to crush the avocado into the kale and get their (clean!) hands dirty. Because they have made the salad, they are usually eager to eat it too.
How to make massaged kale salad
Makes 2 meal-sized servings or 10 samples
1 bunch kale, stemmed and finely chopped
1 cup grated carrots
1/2 avocado, peeled and pitted
1/4 cup thinly sliced red onion
2 tablespoons lemon juice
A sprinkling of sea salt (1/8 – 1/4 tsp, to taste)
2 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted
Stem and chop kale and place in a bowl. Massage it until it starts to soften.
Toss the rest of the ingredients except the sesame seeds into the bowl and use your hands or the back of a large spoon to thoroughly mash avocado into kale and mix everything together
Serve into bowls, garnish with sesame seeds and eat immediately, or store in the fridge for up to 2 days.
Power balls, no-bake cookies and fruit/veg “face pizzas” on pitas or tortillas are other things that don’t take a lot of equipment and are very hands-on for students. When cooking and food prep is part of your classroom routine students have opportunities to try new foods, develop and practice important life skills, and it can help encourage the regular consumption of plant-based foods.
2)Use activities that make eating plants visual and fun
An example of this is teaching kids about “eating the rainbow,” a very visual concept that often resonates with young people. Colours in foods often correspond with the nutrients they contain, and this is one reason why eating vibrant, colourful foods is so good for us! Counting the number of colourful foods they have eaten in a day can become a fun game for students. In addition, using the rainbow framework can be helpful in discussing how colourful foods can be beneficial for different aspects of our health (e.g., orange foods are good for our eyes and help protect us from getting sick, etc). There is a free infographic download from Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine on the Nutrition Rainbow that may be helpful here.
3) Talk to students about where their food comes from
As a society we have become disconnected from our food and farms. However, that is beginning to change as mainstream society acknowledges the impacts our food choices have on planetary health and the wellbeing of non-human animals.
Eating more plant-based foods is apositive, pro-active thing we can all do to tread more lightly on the earth and understanding this can be very empowering for students. Discussion content will necessarily depend on the age of the students involved.
For younger students a great place to start may be an activity that compares various environmental impacts—like water use or pollution—of animal foods versus plant foods. This information from The Vegetarian Resource Group could help teachers interested in creating such an activity. PETA’s Share the World kit may also be helpful for elementary school teachers looking to bring education about the importance of compassion and empathy into their classroom.
Conversations with older students may be inspired and informed by documentaries like Seaspiracy, Game Changers or David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet.
As major organizations like the United Nations are recognizing the merit of a global dietary shift toward more plant-based foods, schools and universities around the country and continent are beginning to embrace their important role in educating students about the connections between food and health, environment, and compassion.
Are you a teacher, educator or parent who has helped to introduce plant-based learning into your school? How are you doing it? Let us know in the comments below. Or, if you’re interested in helping to implement more plant-based learning into your classroom/school and need support, we’d love to hear from you!
Don’t forget to subscribe to Vancouver Humane Society’s PlantUniversity Platform to stay updated on new free resources and tips uploaded to the site.
Tips for helping students and their parents embrace plant-based meals
Featured Author: Ryan McKee
Replacing animal-products with plants in our diets can improve our health greatly. This is one of the many reasons why it is so important to start introducing children to plant-based meals from an early age.
Elemeno is a Vancouver-based meal delivery service that prepares plant-based lunches for school children. Launched in the Spring of 2021, the aim is to make healthier kids lunches available to Vancouver parents. In the following paragraphs, founder Ryan McKee addresses common concerns and also offers tips that can help parents and students embrace a plant-based diet.
This plant-based approach is unique in the market and a response to the upward trend toward meat and dairy reduction. But I wondered if it would meet the desires of parents and their evolving concerns on what their children eat.
After surveying more than 200 local parents I learned that parents are increasingly reading labels, shopping local and sticking to ingredients they know. They are attuned to allergies and other sensitivities that their child may be experiencing and they are willing to modify their family’s diet to accommodate.
So while parents are focusing more and more on healthy ingredients, there is still apprehension in regards to plant-based food. Long held beliefs around meat and dairy products have created uncertainty and questions about plant-based eating. When we launched our plant-based lunch program in the Fall of 2021, we faced a lot of questions and concerns.
To address these concerns, we turned the dial up on education. We focused less on challenging parents’ views and more on weaving into their beliefs.
Common concern: My child is used to animal-based meals.
We acknowledge that dairy products such as milk, yogurt and cheese tend to be dominant at breakfast time. Meat is often the ‘hero’ or main dish at dinnertime as well, so plants tend to take on a secondary role at those times. This means they can often be foregone or ignored, which reduces the amount of vital nutrients a child consumes. To combat this, our lunch menu brings balance into the daily diet, loading kids up with vitamins, minerals and fiber they may not have otherwise gotten. This approach really resonated with parents, creating a more collaborative and supportive relationship. This approach also helped bridge the gap between parents that felt a vegan or vegetarian diet wasn’t for them.
Common concern: A plant-based lifestyle just isn’t for my family.
Our intention was not to convert families into a certain lifestyle, but rather to be a simple and positive aspect of their weekly routine. We can all agree that we need more plants in our diet, so if we can show them how to do so simply and successfully, then we’re playing our part in raising healthy kids.
To build off this, we send parents a daily ‘fun fact’ that plants offer protein, calcium, iron, B-12 and other essential nutrients, that softly helped to dispel notions otherwise.
Common concern: My child is a picky eater!
We uncovered another benefit of the program: that we’re actively enhancing children’s palettes and tastes. Just as children develop skills in school around communication, social, fine motor, etc., we can play a role in broadening the range of foods they eat. It brings us nothing but joy to hear a parent tell us their child had never tried a curry dish or tasted a mushroom before – and yet, now they love it!
Common concern: My child isn’t a fan of change.
Of course, this adoption of new foods doesn’t come instantly. This was another key concern for parents. Virtually all parents we surveyed felt their child is the pickiest eater on the planet. If there was a scale from 1-10 with 10 being extremely picky, 99% of parents would rate their child no lower than an 8!
While this level of pickiness does present a challenge, at least it’s not unique! To combat this, we ask parents to give us a month to allow for their children to get used to the food. We try to pair new dishes, such as shakshuka, with more familiar sides like muffins and veggie sticks. And we know that peer influence – seeing their friends eating it – goes a long way as well.
This approach has proved successful, but we have also made mistakes, learned and adapted along the way. For example, we found strong reluctance to processed vegan food. Despite the vegan industry taking great steps over the last few years around this, there is still a lack of knowledge around some of the ingredients, the processes to make it and the flavour profile. Ultimately, we decided to focus on ingredients parents can find in the grocery store, made from scratch. As we say, save the lab coats for science class!
We’re still very early in our journey (keep your eye out for Elemeno products to show up on store shelves!) but taking a collaborative approach with parents has built a foundation of trust and loyalty. As we start to move into other schools around the lower mainland, we’re excited to change the game on kids lunches and build healthy habits at the earliest stages.
Cambridge University cuts emissions with less meat & more plant-based foods
Back in 2016, Cambridge University made the decision to remove beef and lamb from its campus menus and offer more plant-based dishes in an effort to reduce its food-related emissions.
Cambridge pointed to the fact that producing beef and lamb emits 250 times more greenhouse gases per gram of protein than legumes (lentils, chickpeas, beans) and that one meal with beef or lamb has the same footprint as eight months of chickpea-based meals. They also highlighted that plant-based foods require less water and land than animal-based foods.
The school has since reported that the decision, which was part of its Sustainable Food Policy, has been effective in reducing emissions per kilogram of food purchased by 33 per cent and land use per kilogram of food purchased by 28 per cent. The move cut the school’s overall emissions by 10.5 per cent, while simultaneously increasing sales and profit.
“It is hard to imagine any other interventions that could yield such dramatic benefits in so short a span of time,” said Andrew Balmford, professor of Conservation Science at the University of Cambridge.
In addition to swapping out red meat options for more plant-based dishes, the school focused on making plant-based dishes appealing and accessible. Cambridge’s catering team took part in plant-based cooking classes and visited restaurants with plant-based menus for inspiration. Managers received training on marketing for sustainability rather than for profit.
Meanwhile, dishes added to the menu were strategically placed in the cafeteria to highlight them and encourage customers to choose them over meat-based options.
When it came to the labelling of dishes, staff focused on the ingredients rather than identifying dishes as specifically “veg” or “vegan”. They hoped this would create universal appeal and that customers would focus on the deliciousness of the dish.
Some of the most popular plant-based dishes include Swedish style vegballs with mash and creamy mustard sauce, smoky Moroccan chickpea stew with saffron infused couscous, and a sweet potato burger.
The success of this decision by Cambridge University serves as an inspiring example for other post-secondary schools and institutions that offer food service. It also comes at a crucial time; a growing body of research concludes that a significant reduction in global meat consumption is essential for addressing climate change, the global biodiversity crisis and the high demand for meat that drives the cruel factory farming system.
Interested in introducing or expanding plant-based menu options at your school, workplace, business or in your community? Get in touch!