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Seattle vegan cafe.jpg Chartwells Higher Ed
Chartwells opened the completely plant-based Convergence Zone Cafe earlier this year at Seattle University.

Health and wellness focus driving plant-based trend

Major contract firms and self-op dining programs make significant commitments to more veg-centric offerings.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) recently noted that Pennsylvania State University has become the third school in the Big Ten to increase its plant-based options on campus, committing to having 35% of its entrees be plant-based by 2025. In this, it joins Big Ten peers the University of Michigan, which set a target of serving 55% plant-based entrees by 2025, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which set a plant-based target of 30% by 2025.

It’s just the latest in a long list of developments that are highlighting the growing trend toward plant-based dishes as a key driver of health and wellness for customers and environmental health for the planet. For instance, the California state legislature passed a budget act last year that includes $100 million for securing plant-based ingredients in schools in the state while on the other side of the country, culturally diverse plant-based meals are now the primary dinner options for inpatients at three New York City Health + Hospitals locations.

“In setting this goal, Penn State has shown tremendous leadership and responsiveness to its student body,” said Christine Coughlin, food service innovation coordinator at HSUS. "There is a growing demand among students for plant-based menu offerings that are better for themselves, the animals and the planet.”

Penn State Housing and Food Services is one of the largest university food service organizations in the country, purchasing over $40 million in goods each year. Campus dining commons alone serve approximately 1.4 million meals each semester, and Penn State currently serves over 14,000 on-campus residents and 14,000 LionCash customers.


Last September, it opened The Hungry Herbivore, its first exclusively gluten-free and plant-forward retail concept on a college campus at Liberty University.

Late last year, the University of Michigan had committed to having 55% plant-based offerings on menus by 2025 in collaboration with HSUS. As part of this effort, HSUS chefs provided a plant-based culinary training to the university culinary staff, assisted with a plant-based takeover in the East Quad dining hall, and conducted plant-based cooking demonstration for students. The events featured new Protein Foundations recipes that highlight whole food, plant-based sources of protein as center-of-the-plate menu offerings.

Outside the Big Ten, the University of Massachusetts Amherst Dining Program is partnering with Nestlé Professional and plant-based soup vendor Wholesome Crave to launch The Purpose-Driven Plant-Based Incubator, which offers college and university foodservice operators turn-key tips, fully-developed recipes/workshops and collaboration to help speed the introduction of more sustainable, attractive plant-forward offerings on campus menus. The Incubator was developed in collaboration with four-time James Beard Award Winner Chef Michel Nischan of Wholesome Crave and the culinary team at UMass Amherst, and modeled after the UMass Dining plant-forward menu program.

It addresses how best to develop flavorful plant-forward recipes, streamline dish preparation, introduce cooking techniques that enhance flavor, work within budget constraints and simplify operational challenges.  More than a dozen other universities have signed up to participate with the Incubator in 2023.

Earlier this year HSUS published its Protein Sustainability Scorecard evaluating food service companies on their environment and animal welfare commitments, singling out nine major contract firms for their commitments. In the report, it noted that with increasing client demand and public concern, virtually all major food service companies have claimed sustainability as central to their business model, which in most cases includes a commitment to reducing animal-based ingredients in the dishes they serve.

One of the most recent announcements have come from Southwest Foodservice Excellence (SFE), a major contract services provider to the K-12 school market, which in April announced a collaboration with HSUS in which HSUS is leading a virtual plant-based culinary workshop that will facilitate collaboration among SFE chefs, dietitians, and general managers on new menu possibilities. SFE chefs will then pilot at least two new plant-based recipes a week at their schools, replacing meat-based dishes with plant-based options over the course of six weeks. SFE currently has 26-30% of its menu items as plant-based options, but has set a goal of increasing the amount of plant-based entrée offerings by to 36-40% by the end of 2024.

Following the successful launch last year of its Veggabóls 100% plant-based K-12 concept, Whitsons Culinary Group announced that beginning in the 2023-2024 school year, its schools will be required to menu one plant-based meal out of every four meals offered, and beginning with the 2024-2025 school year, it plans to increase this requirement to one plant-based meal out of every three meals offered on the menu, according to Mary DiStefano, director of marketing and brand management. Through collaboration with the HSUS, the company will also be developing new recipes to add to the concept, as well as converting many of their vegetarian options to be fully plant-based, she added.

Also recently, Elior North America, one of the largest broad-market contract firms in the country, released its first-ever social and environmental responsibility report in which it noted that it served 57,000 pounds of local produce in 2022. It was also one of the firms cited in the HSUS Protein Sustainability Scorecard for its commitment to having 50% of its menu and recipe development for entrees completely meatless by 2025, with an emphasis on plant-based proteins.

Also last year, ISS Guckenheimer, a major contract firm operating primarily in the corporate dining market, pledged to make 55% of its menu options plant-based by 2025. A signatory to the Cool Food Pledge that requires a minimum reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 25% by 2030, the company plans to work with the HSUS on recipe ideation, culinary trainings and greenhouse gas assessments, and initiate the global roll out of the PowerPlant concept and culinary toolkit developed by its chefs and recently piloted in the U.S. that focuses on utilizing more seasonal, regional vegetable and plant-based alternatives as a core element of menu writing, to reduce reliance on animal protein.

Last fall, Aramark announced that it intends to have 44% of its residential dining menu offerings be plant-based by 2025 at the more than 250 colleges and universities where it operates, part of the company’s nearly 15-year collaboration with HSUS on plant-based initiatives that is also part of its climate change commitments that include reducing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the food it serves in the U.S. by 25% by 2030.

Sodexo expanded its collaboration with HSUS a year ago as part of its overall strategy to reduce its carbon emissions 34% by 2025 after an internal analysis found that at least 70% of its U.S. supply carbon footprint was related to animal-based food purchases in fiscal year 2020. Last September, it opened The Hungry Herbivore, its first exclusively gluten-free and plant-forward retail concept on a college campus at Liberty University.

Among Compass Group operating companies, its Chartwells Higher Ed unit last year introduced 100% plant-based dining halls and pop-up events to accommodate the increasing desire of students to practice a more meat-free diet. Among its top trends for 2023 are more 100% plant-based menus on college campuses and more permanent, full-service concepts and retail locations that are completely plant-based such as the 100% plant-based cafe opened earlier this year at Seattle University.

Meanwhile, Chartwells K12 has introduced a new plant-based culinary concept called Veg Out in response to its survey of school-age students that found one in three rating vegetarian or vegan options extremely or very important when choosing lunch at school, and 37% saying they would eat school lunch more often if there were more vegetarian and vegan choices. The company partnered with the CIA Healthy Kids Collaborative and other industry leaders to create over 120 vegan and vegetarian options for the program, including dishes like a watermelon poke bowl, Tuscan bean and basil penne salad, tofu huevos rancheros, Thai sweet chili tofu bowl and sweet potato and spinach vindaloo.

Compass operating company CulinArt has created a Plant-based Eating Road Map at Stony Brook University that directs students to nearly 350 plant-based options at both residential dining centers and retail outlets across the campus in order to help them find foods that come primarily from plants. It was emailed to all resident students and promoted via social media and on the dining website’s wellness section. Then, once students reach a dining location, they can seek out items accompanied by signage indicating “I’m Plant Based,” as a menu identifier with nutritional information.

Also, Compass unit Morrison Healthcare has announced a collaboration with plant-based protein vendor Impossible Foods to bring the latter’s Impossible Beef and Burger across Morrison’s network of healthcare facilities nationwide. The partnership represents Impossible Foods’s largest menu collaboration in healthcare to-date while helping Morrison achieve its sustainability goals.

Restaurant incubator FoodWorks, a Compass Group unit that partners with local restaurants to provide them with operating space in onsite environments last September launched an initiative called Green Powered by FoodWorks in partnership with Produce For Better Health Foundation (PBH) to advance fruit and vegetable consumption in America.

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