Cafeterias Across the Country are Going Vegan. Here's Why ...

An innovative chef-training program is helping institutions expand their vegan offerings.

Dining halls in schools, universities, and hospitals across the nation are trading meat-based menu items for vegan dishes, thanks to a flourishing food-training program. The initiative—led by author Kristie Middleton (also the managing director of The Humane Society of the United States), along with her team of chefs, dietitians, and nutrition specialists—consists of a two-day, hands-on training session with food-service professionals at nationwide institutions. During these events, participants are taught the health, environmental, and animal-welfare benefits of plant-based eating, all while sampling plant-based fare. By the end of the two days, chefs have the tools and information they need to introduce plant-based food at their institutions.

Big business
Compass and Aramark—two major players in the foodservice world—are participating in the program as part of a commitment to provide healthier options and to ensure better treatment of animals in their supply chain. Aramark is aiming to increase the percentage of vegan or vegetarian main dishes served across its dining operations to 30 percent by 2020, while Compass subsidiaries Morrison Healthcare and Chartwells Higher Education Dining Services have outlined plans to shift toward a greater emphasis on plant-based cuisine. For example, last year, Morrison Healthcare introduced a 21-day plant-based challenge at some of its hospitals to encourage staff and visitors to decrease meat and dairy from their diets.

Growing demand
Due to growing demand from consumers, other culinary operations across the country are also replacing meat with vegetable products. However, reaching these new meat-free goals can be daunting for chefs and foodservice professionals who are not familiar with the new culinary territory. This lack of knowledge is why this in-house, recipe-centric concept was created. So far, the response from chefs has been phenomenal. “It’s so inspiring to see chefs come in who carry preconceived notions about plant-based food [...] helping themselves to seconds or thirds at mealtime, telling us the trainings have changed their lives—and knowing that will translate to thousands more plant-based meals served to their students or guests,” Middleton says.

The problem solver
Initially, as the program began, the goal was a four-times-per-year timetable for the training sessions, but interest exceeded the original expectations. The training quickly extended to doctors, nurses, and dieticians interested in learning more about the benefits of plant-based diets. “We received a lot of interest,” Middleton says, “but a key question we encountered after doing this outreach for several years was, ‘What do we serve and how do we do it?’” To answer that question, chefs experiment with vegan ingredients and dishes, and receive a book with more than 100 recipes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner meals. Chefs also learn how to make dishes such as carrot osso bucco, eggplant parmesan, chocolate-thumbprint cookies and open-face pecan tamales.

The team
Middleton found a natural leader in chef Wanda White, who was chosen to lead the training sessions. The two first met while the classically trained pastry chef was revamping the options at an under-performing dining hall at the University of North Texas, turning it into a wildly popular all-vegan spot called Mean Greens. At the time, White wasn’t an expert on vegan cooking, but she read an array of cookbooks and scoured recipes to develop a menu that now includes plant-based versions of Frito pie, bean and leek cassoulet, paninis, and sushi. The program also includes chef Jennifer DiFrancesco, a chef at Canisius College in Buffalo, NY who opened Pitchforks, a vegan-dining concept that was so well-received that it led to a 400-percent increase in sales. With the help of chef Allison Covelli, DiFrancesco then veganized on-campus desserts. Another key player in the program is environmental nutritionist Helen Harwatt, PhD, who helps participating institutions track savings related to water and greenhouse gas emissions, and the number of animals who have been spared thanks to the switch.

The best of both worlds
For Middleton, these training programs are satisfying for both professional and personal reasons. Vegan for 20 years, Middleton is the author of MeatLess: Transform the Way You Eat and Live—One Meal at a Time, a resource for those interested in learning about the benefits of eating vegan. Her work continues to bolster her commitment to helping prevent suffering. “(Being vegan has) introduced me to some of the most compassionate, hardworking, and dedicated people in the world,” Middleton says.

Theresa Boehl is editor of and author of e-book Vegan in Santo Domingo: A guide to meat-free, dairy-free dining in the Caribbean’s largest city.

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