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Power Plants

By Selena Fragassi


Changes in modern eating habits are giving campuses something to chew on, with many turning to daily servings of fruits and vegetables.

In case you haven’t noticed lately, the standard American diet is changing. Meat is being eclipsed by potatoes, salads are no longer just a starter course, and one tofu option on a menu just won’t cut it anymore. Though it may seem like a sudden adjustment, this shift has been steadily growing for a number of years, steered by a focus on plant-based eating as more and more research uncovers the health, environmental, and ethical benefits of a plant-focused diet.

According to the latest polling by “Vegetarian Times,” more than 3 percent of the U.S. population (or 7.3 million people) identify with a vegetarian-based diet while another 0.5 percent (or 1 million people) claim to be vegan, the term for a stricter lifestyle that not only abstains from meat but also animal byproducts like dairy and eggs. One of the most interesting developments though is the fact that even diehard carnivores are adapting to this trend through modified changes. A recent study by Wakefield Research found that 55 percent of U.S. residents (nearly 160 million people) made a conscious decision to eat more plant-based meals in 2016.

Driving these numbers is a large proportion of young people. The “Vegetarian Times” poll shows that 42 percent of respondents fall in the 18- to 34-year-old range. With that compelling evidence, campuses have found themselves in the middle of a food revolution as more and more are starting to offer dedicated plant-based restaurant options, some with fully vegan dining halls.

Getting Ahead of the Trend

When District Chef Thomas Morisette, CEC, was studying for his executive chef certification, he says, “There was one statistic that really stuck with me.” Namely that 15 percent of all college students would follow a vegetarian diet while attending college; and in regular restaurants, where the demographic skews older, 25 percent still chose a vegetarian entrée. “That tells us that 20 years from now, when the current college students are the main diners, there will likely be a dramatic split of 50-50 plant-based vs. meat-based entrees. That made it pretty clear to us that just serving pasta and tofu for our vegetarian eaters wouldn’t cut it. We had to be more innovative than restaurants.”

Morisette helps run Zag Dining by Sodexo, part of the culinary offerings at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington and says the team was surprised by how the vegan population had “increased very noticeably” in recent years. The campus, which serves 4,800 students and attracts meeting business with a dedicated conference center on-site, is able to support those eaters with a strictly vegetarian option Zagriculture. It’s one of six distinct platforms in Gonzaga’s residence dining venue called The Cog.

‘Since we took over the main dining hall, the change has been huge,” says Morisette. “Back in the day, the bulk of our vegetarian meals were just stir-fry or pasta or vegetables with tofu, but now we hardly do any tofu dishes.” With the ongoing debate about GMOs, heavily present in the soybeans from which tofu is sourced, progressive dining programs are turning to more plant-based proteins. “We use a lot of quinoa, lentils, and garbanzo beans instead,” says Morisette. Much of the vegetables are sourced locally in Spokane, and a portion of the lettuce (about 25 heads a week) comes from Gonzaga’s own hydroponic greenhouse. Hydroponics are modern way of growing that doesn’t use soil but rather a mineral-rich water supply to encourage large yields.

“We had hydroponics on campus for about four years in an experimental phase in anticipation of developing The Cog, which opened in August 2015,” says Chuck Faulkinberry, director of auxiliary services. It was one of the first of its kind on a higher education campus, with the idea to allow students to participate in cooking classes and learn more about farm-to-fork practices. The greenhouse is also open to the public and available for group tours. “The other thing that is unique is we found a local hydroponic farmer that we partnered with and is on retainer with Sodexo to further educate students working in the greenhouse, so it’s really an integrative learning program.”

Finding An Ally in the Humane Society

Recently, Gonzaga also partnered with Ken Botts, food and nutrition manager for the Humane Society of the United States. Botts does outreach with campuses across the country to train culinary teams and helps them design and develop plant-based dining concepts. He will soon be working on a multi-day program with Gonzaga’s team of chefs. “What’s unique about the program is that we teach a plant-based whole foods approach using ingredients campuses already have in their kitchens, like quinoa or steel-cut oats, beans, rice, and lentils,” Botts says, which is beneficial since more modern plant-based meat swaps are too pricey for institutional budgets. “The great thing too is that the trainings and consulting we do are free and supported by donors.”

There are three reasons why this program is gaining steam, Botts says. First is sustainability. “Everyone is concerned about global warming and they now understand that connection between animal meat and factory farming and what it’s doing to the environment.” Students are also health-conscious. “So they want transparency in their food; they want to know where it’s grown and what’s in it and generally want to eat cleaner.” And third is really a trend that is pushed by the millennial demographic on campuses, says Botts, “which is animal welfare issues.”

Botts also says that universities are looking at plant-based dining as an option not only to give students what they want but also to increase participation in dining programs and meal plans. “There are so many personal reasons people like to east plant-based, whether that’s spiritual, such as those that eat kosher or halal, or food allergies, or simply because a part of the student body comes from countries like China or India where plants are a major focus of eating.”

That information inspired three of the largest food service contractors in the country to “step up and commit to more humane supply chains,” he says. Not only Sodexo (as in the case of Gonzaga) but also Compass and Aramark, the latter of which made headlines in 2015 for their expanded vegan options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner provided to the more than 500 campuses it serves.

“Based on information gathered from Aramark’s proprietary customer feedback platform and dining surveys, the number of students interested in vegan options has continued to steadily increase over the past several years,” Scott Zahren, Aramark executive chef and director of culinary development told “Latest Vegan News.”

One of the most original dining service models is at the University of North Texas in Denton where Botts worked for 10 years and was instrumental in developing and rolling out Mean Greens, a fully vegan all-you-care-to-eat café. It remains the only of its kind in the U.S. though Botts mentions he has been having recent meetings in New York and Boston with universities interested in doing something similar.

Learning from the Early Adopters

Another of the originals in this field was Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. In 2008, Yale Hospitality started gradually converting its menus to more plant-based options. “[We] saw that U.S. consumption of meat was declining as consumers became more aware of the impact diet has on health. We also recognized that this would open up opportunities for us to promote and make available plant-based protein options,” says a statement on the department’s website.

Adam Millman, senior director of Yale Dining, also points to a former student, who happened to be the daughter of organic chef/activist Alice Waters, and was very vocal at the time about having healthier options for campus dining. “She was involved with one of our facilities, and we expanded the program over the past eight years. It allowed us to be at the forefront of this movement,” Millman says.

Now it’s implemented across the board. “We are primarily a plant-based organization with 85 percent of our menu devoted to that practice.” Yale Hospitality says there are more than 35 plant-based protein options offered each week and a minimum of 150 vegetarian/vegan options as well. The program has even earned “Grade A” distinction by Peta2 for its approach.

Millman furthers there’s a greater reason to offering these food options beyond just meeting demand. “We fundamentally believe health and wellness comes from plant-based menus and initiatives. It’s at the core of our foundation.”

Like Gonzaga, the idea at Yale is to make vegetables part of the center plate and “create excitement through flavor profiles,” says Millman. One of the most popular items is the blended burger concept (made from mushrooms), which Millman says was invented at Yale six years ago. “We worked with the Mushroom Council to create the concept and over the last few years it’s gained traction nationwide.”

Another popular item is a half-roasted eggplant, placed in a wood-fired pizza oven with some local thyme. “We char it so that it becomes buttery on the inside and then top it with hand-picked ricotta, which is sourced locally, as well as oven-roasted tomatoes. It’s very seasonal and simple but bold in flavors and has become a signature item,” says Millman who notes that 64 percent of all ingredients are sourced locally. His team has also put a creative spin on the traditional BLT, making the “bacon” from sweet potatoes that are cut thick, brushed with maple syrup and black pepper, and cooked in a smoker until crispy.

“We don’t look for ways to hide vegetables but rather ways to showcase them, so they’re the star of the plate,” Millman says. “We strive to reinvent the traditional to make it exciting.”

The Growing Popularity of Plants

Millman says the success of Yale’s program is seen in how the students, faculty, and other campus personnel have embraced it. It’s become so in demand that Yale Hospitality has brought a plant-based focus to catering for private events and conference groups as well. The university estimates that more than half of the students choose at least one vegetarian dish each week, “even though vegans and vegetarians comprise just three to four percent of the campus population.”

Gonzaga’s Zagriculture venue has also become a popular on-campus attraction. “It’s so front and center that all the carnivores that eat in dining hall pass by there and see how good the food looks, and even they are getting more interested in veggie-based dining,” says Faulkinberry. To that point, Chef Morisette will help them if they want to transition to more plant-based meals by taking photos of the veggie plates that well-versed students put together at the self-service station. He then shares them for inspiration and to show how creative and tasty this way of eating can be.

“A word that comes up often with some research firms like Technomic is ‘flexitarian,’ or those people that want something lighter and avoid meat for whatever reason at any given time. They are the ones really driving participation,” says Botts, who notes that UNT’s Mean Greens café does nearly 1,700 transactions per day. Other initiatives like “Meatless Mondays” (where people vow to give up meat one day a week) have also driven interest. Places like the veggie-friendly Roots dining venue at the University of California, San Diego campus in La Jolla even have their own Yelp page where students and the public comment on how good the food is.

Where some universities (or other retailers) have made errors, Botts says, is in creating “vegan stations” because they’re not inclusive. “People that eat meat may not go there because they think it’s special or different. It’s important that those titles of vegan, vegetarian, meatless, meat-free are gone and the intention is really just to celebrate good, healthy food. That’s where we have had success—when everyone gets to take advantage of the offerings.”

Looking to the Future

The advancements in the plant-based movement are not plateauing any time soon. The way of the future can be seen in places like the University of Colorado Boulder. The campus, named one of the top 10 vegan-friendly campuses by “College Magazine,” just opened its brand-new Village Center Dining Hall in the campus’ Williams Village. The 109,000-square-foot facility was a $49 million investment and year-and-a-half time commitment, and the results are impressive.

Not only are there more plant-based options for purchase (chefs worked with Botts and the Humane Society of the United States earlier in 2016), but this fall, the add-on of a 3,000-square-foot greenhouse will open in the building. It will feature 150 hydroponic towers that will grow lettuce, combined with a unique wash and transport system that seamlessly brings it to Village Center’s salad bar.

“Anyone at the salad bar can look into the greenhouse through glass windows to see the greens growing and identify where their salad is coming from,” says Dan Dykstra, director of CU Conference Services (conference guests and the general public are welcome to dine here at any time). “It shows a great concept of really hands-on food.”

Another component of that is a blender bar where students and guests can make their own smoothie—by working for it. Rather than using electricity to power the blender, customers have to pedal a bicycle to do so (the blender is attached to the console).

All of the ideas for the building were highly student-driven. “We held several student focus groups and consistently have seen the request for more plant-based food options, with a lot of the feedback also including the desire for a more sustainable food system,” says Paul R. Houle, director of campus dining services, noting that all ingredients used come from no more than 250 miles away. Other requests that were accomplished include all-day breakfast and cooking classes.

The features of the building have received attention from the local channel 9 news and the Association of Collegiate Conference and Events Directors-International (ACCED-I) whose members were recently able to do “drive-through” tours. Beyond just a student initiative, Dykstra stresses the dining hall (which seats 700 indoors and 200 outdoors) really is for the community of Boulder, which has always been progressive in its green ideals.

To that effect, he says, his department is already looking for ways to utilize the building for visiting groups. “The foresight is to incorporate meeting space within the complex. As we put together sales strategies, we can combine a complete package—not only can you eat at this facility but you can meet here as well. We are excited to be able to create a package for meeting planners that incorporates all those aspects.”

Campus officials have also thought about the larger picture of how buildings like this can impact the surrounding areas. In a five-year collaboration with the city of Boulder, the university has installed biodigestors, which take food from dishwashers that is then compressed and liquefied and travels through municipal sanitary sewers. The nutrients and enzymes from the food waste help to treat sewage, providing a more efficient way to turn water into a clean supply.

“If you really talk about the stakeholders in Village Center, the city of Boulder is one as well,” says Dykstra. “Our hope is that if it works well, it can be a model that can really take off and be used elsewhere.”

Get Connected

Gonzaga University
Spokane, WA
(509) 313.6851

Humane Society of the United States
(202) 452.1100

University of Colorado Boulder
Boulder, CO
(303) 735.2580

Yale University
New Haven, CT
(203) 432.0465
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