Every long journey begins with a single step…or sometimes, with a pop-up. At the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt), dining services recently took the first step toward a more plant-based future with a pop-up that is showcasing the glory of veggie-centric cuisine.
Collaboration with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) was the catalyst for the pop-up. During spring break, two-dozen people from Pitt’s culinary team took part in a two-day training program with HSUS, learning new skills and recipes for plant-based food from HSUS Executive Chef Wanda White.
“The team was so energized and inspired coming out of the training that we knew we had to do something in the short term to maintain the momentum,” says Nick Goodfellow, sustainability coordinator with Sodexo at Pitt. “With only a month and a half left in the academic year, we thought a pop-up station in our largest dining hall would be the most effective way to get everyone excited about healthy, sustainable plant-based food.”
The cart is a three-well concessions stand repurposed from the on-campus basketball arena.
The concept, called Forward Food, popped up in the form of a cart at Pitt’s Market Central dining hall earlier this month, open now for lunch and dinner through the rest of the semester. The concept is billed on promo materials as “not just a station for vegans and vegetarians, this is delicious, nutrient dense food for all…there is something on the menu for everyone.”
On the first day, garbanzo bean sliders, quinoa primavera and sautéed spinach with red onion and garlic were on the lunch menu. Dinner was a creative plant-based take on osso bucco. Instead of the traditional lamb shank that’s slow braised to marrow-y goodness, carrots got the same treatment, bringing out their savory-sweet complexity, paired with creamy polenta and roasted red plum tomatoes.
The menu items are a far cry from “same ole” vegan choices, riffing on global and regional cuisines: fried green tomatoes with spicy Cajun sauce, curried rice and lentils, General Tso tofu with lo mein noodles, Tuscan mushroom salad, black bean-sweet potato burritos with chipotle-lime portobello mushrooms and a classic French cassoulet with beans and leeks.
Abdou Cole, resident district manager with Sodexo at Pitt, says he was excited to the see the pop-up come together.
“Our cooks have extended the training they have received to actual implementation, serving all the amazing recipe they were trained on,” Cole says.
The dining team has been posting information about a more plant-based way of eating on social media, busting myths like “plant-based diets lack protein” (on the contrary, legumes, whole grains and nuts provide plenty of protein) or “plant-based diets lack calcium” (plant-based sources of calcium include tofu, broccoli, almond milk and kale).
The attention-grabbing all-vegan pop-up is drawing long lines already, and will run through the end of this semester.
Food Forward is already resonating with students, as well, with several student health and wellness groups helping to spread the message.
“We had a line forming 10 minutes before we opened to serve our first meal when we launched the station,” Goodfellow says. “Students were so thrilled to see a new addition to the dining hall and to be able to easily identify where to get a healthy sustainable meal. A few students thought it was only going to be operating for the week, but they were so excited when we told them it would be there for the rest of the semester.”
As one student tweeted this week, “This meal was one of the best meals I’ve had in market…please keep this station forever.”
In fact, plans are even bigger than just keeping the station. The pop-up is step one in a long-term plan by dining services to establish a retail location as a completely plant-based space. For the rest of the semester, the dining team will prepare recipes they learned with the Humane Society pros and also testing new recipes at Forward Food, looking for feedback and tracking the best-performing new items.