Hearing Vegetarian Voices

For both health and ethical reasons, vegetarian and vegan menu items are growing rapidly in popularity across all market sectors. The message about the importance of vegetables and fruits in our diet has been getting louder for years, but what’s been a slow and simmering interest is reaching a boil this year as more operators add vegetarian alternatives to their menus.

Recently, a report from the School Nutrition Association showed 98.8% of member school districts offered fresh fruits and vegetables this year, while 63.9% served vegetarian meals.

At Gwinnett County Public Schools in Suwanee, Ga., Karen Crawford, nutrition education coordinator, has a vegetarian line on all menus, prompted by trends and student and parent requests.

“We realized that about 3% of the population is vegetarian and we have around 5,000 students,” notes Crawford. “We want to offer the health benefits associated with plant-based, soy-based foods.

“Before, we used to offer cheese pizzas and quesadillas or peanut butter and jelly. In 2007, we decided to introduce five soy-based veggie products and so we went to our manufacturers to see what they had for vegetarian entrées and did taste testing. We added a veggie corn dog that was a huge seller, but it was discontinued. ‘Chicken’ nuggets were also popular, and we also put on a ‘chicken’ patty, a ‘chicken’ burger and black bean burger.

By the end of the year we had done 500,000 servings of the new products and determined we wanted to continue.”

This year, Crawford added spaghetti with veggie-based “meat”balls. “We did an Asian day with mini veggie egg rolls, and we do black bean empanadas and hummus and pita chips that the kids like. Last year, soy-based entrée servings were around 800,000, and this year it looks like they’ll be over one million.”

Response has been so positive from both students and teachers that next year more items will be added, including a veggie-based “chicken sausage” biscuit for breakfast.

Demand is driving the addition of more vegetarian dishes to menus this year at the 750-bed UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco. Jack Henderson, associate director of foodservice, has offered vegetarian options for a long time. But two years ago, he began to expand the options to meet growing requests.

During National Nutrition Month, UCSF Medical Center introduced a seasonal recipe of the month that was vegetarian. Additionally, it started offering a 15% discount on its largely vegetarian meals initiative (a few options feature fish but most are salads, says Henderson). Called Smart Choice, the program offers meals high in fiber, low in fat and low in calories. Items are packaged with a large orange “S.”

FoodService Director - Menu Strategies - Vegetarian - Tony GeraciSodexo Health Care accounts recently began substituting vegetable patties for meat on Mondays in an effort to reduce the carbon footprint of both operations and clients.

“As we move toward vegetable proteins being a healthy alternative for both people and the planet, we’ll be continuing to evolve our menus to meet the demanding culinary tastes of our clients and customers,” says Dave Willard, senior director for culinary development for Sodexo Health Care.

One new menu item is Pasta Fantastica, created at St. Mary’s Health in Athens, Ga. “It is great for catering,” Willard notes. “We offer it with ‘steak-marinated’ grilled portobello mushrooms.”

At Union Hospital in Elkton, Md., Holly Emmons, manager of food and nutrition services, began a reduced-meat Mondays program during National Nutrition Month by increasing the number of vegetarian menu alternatives. She works with local farms to bring the best local products to the hospital’s menus and makes them available to employees and visitors as part of a community nutrition education program. Among the vegetarian alternatives she’s added from local farms is a potato and chard soup.

At Parkview Adventist Medical Center in Brunswick, Maine, Foodservice Director Oleg Opalynk serves patients and visitors alike an all-vegetarian menu, seeking to offer spicy flavors from around the globe to enhance plant-based fare. He favors such dishes as Middle Eastern chickpea and butternut squash served over Japanese udon noodles and a vegan polenta made with a sauce of shiitake mushrooms and fresh ginger.

In Connecticut, New Milford Hospital’s Kerry Gold, dining services director
for Unidine Corp. at the account, incorporates tempeh—made from fermented soybeans—into a sauté with broccoli, bell peppers and onion over Israeli couscous.

Patients are given a vegetarian option with each meal. The hospital also increased its salad bar offerings to include items such as wheat berry salad, edamame and roasted whole corn in a light soy ginger dressing.

“We also prepare fresh soups with housemade, vegetarian stocks that are offered to all, such as carrot ginger with Asian pear, parsnip and turnip, cauliflower and stinging nettle leaf bisque.”

‘Flex’ible Dining

Compass has embraced the flexitarian diet to promote health and sustainability.

FoodService Director - Menu Strategies - Vegetarian - Tony GeraciReaching out to non-vegetarians, Compass Group North America launched a Be A Flexitarian program to promote awareness of healthy options for its customers in most segments.

A flexitarian is someone who actively incorporates meals with plant-based proteins into his or her meals in place of meat and other animal proteins but isn’t necessarily a vegetarian. By making a slight change in diet and simply eating one meat-free meal a week, flexitarians can make an impact on both their health and the environment, according to diet proponents.

“We wanted to make eating healthier [for non-vegetarians]—maybe one plant-based meal a week—something approachable that they might not have otherwise, like chili with beans,” says Deanne Brandstetter, corporate dietitian and vice president of nutrition and wellness for Compass Group North America. “We tell them it’s not an all or nothing kind of thing. They can eat one vegetarian meal weekly without having to give up meat forever.”

Keeping the promise of a new recipe each week has been challenging, but it allowed for celebrity chefs’ and cookbook authors’ recipes to be brought in.

The program was launched in approximately 550 school districts served by Chartwells, where a team of registered dietitians and chefs developed approximately 100 vegetarian/vegan recipes and will continue to add additional recipes to the collection.

In Washington, D.C., at Thompson School Dining Services, for example, Chartwells Dietitian Whitney Bateson now serves a variety of plant-based choices such as dry beans and peas that are excellent sources of plant-based protein and provide zinc, iron, dietary fiber and nutrients such as folate that are low in many Americans’ diets.

To engage students, Chartwells offers tastings to let students sample the new options. It also is promoting the program with menus and signage on the serving line. Specific dishes added to the menu include a bean burrito, sweet potato frittata and risotto with Swiss chard and spring peas.

Beyond the flexitarian program, Chartwells is also sourcing more local produce, utilizing more whole grains, offering a greater variety of fruits and vegetables and more “whole” foods on an ongoing basis.

Veggie Advocate

Tony Geraci came to Baltimore on a mission. Now he’s taking it to other school districts.

FoodService Director - Menu Strategies - Vegetarian - Tony GeraciSince coming to Baltimore’s City Schools program in 2008, Tony Geraci, director of food and nutrition services, transformed the department that feeds 85,000 children each day into an acclaimed model for healthy fare. “At the end of the day, you have to do the right thing for the kids,” he says.

“Meatless Monday is not about denying people meat. In almost every culture, the diets are plant based. Why not celebrate that? Today, we get the message from every corner to eat more fruits and vegetables. We need five to seven servings a day.

The reaction we’ve gotten from the kids has been very positive. We took three abandoned acres with greenhouses and developed the Great Kids Farm where we grow our fruits and vegetables. We’re going to create two more Great Kids Farms.

We started out with vegetarian alternatives like a lasagna with 50% low-fat ricotta cheese and nutrient-dense collard greens, kale and spinach with a sauce that contains dietary requirements and has great flavor. The goal is to be Maryland’s best school nutrition leader.

We serve the kids bean and rice quesadillas, lentils and quinoa. We are going back to basics to make things that are a full of flavor, kid friendly, savory, easy to work with and that could be easily replicated by parents at home in neighborhoods that can be described as food deserts.

We began with fresh fruits and vegetables. The biggest challenge was not with the kids but the adults.

It’s such a monumental shift in the paradigm, and [most] people don’t like change. Another challenge was not having full kitchens and in working with manufacturers to change the way we do business.

We wanted less processed stuff in our food, closer to food’s original intent. Many of the manufacturers [we talked with] were awesome and came to the table. We didn’t want tons of sodium, and we wanted a lower fat cheese and whole-wheat pizza crusts. They understood that it was good business and part of a trend that’s happening now. I think like a cook and act like a businessman. I have to put my clients—the kids—first.

Connecting farmers with the food and the kids is my thing. Here in Maryland, the governor and the secretary of agriculture and I are working to create Maryland’s best brand. Rather than subsidize farms not to grow tobacco, we want to encourage them to produce foods for schools and have all school districts contracting for five items that grow well here. We have not determined what the five items will be, but it looks like peas, corn, carrots, green beans and tomatoes.

Right now, we bid only for Maryland-produced fruits and vegetables. We’re feeding kids better at lower costs. We got an award from the state for buying local produce. We spend $2 million and that’s money that stays in the state and helps the economy here.
School districts just starting to think about offering more vegetarian choices should just do it. Start with baby steps, like a meatless Monday. They’ll be surprised by all the support that comes out of the woodwork. Instead of sloppy Joes, serve black bean burritos. Operationally, it’s nothing they’re not doing already.

People want to overcomplicate things and feel threatened that [vegetarian alternatives] are some kind of militant takeover. It’s not that complicated—just a way to eat more fruits and vegetables. It’s a perfect formula to end child obesity. The food just needs to be recognizable stuff.

At the Great Kids Farm, we serve what we grow in a café there. Kids work on the farm and then make and serve food from it. And the city is starting to reinvest in our infrastructure and rebuild our kitchens so we can cook. Now, we’re remodeling.

Eating healthier, making the connections between farmers and food and customers is a trend that is starting to be replicated. Chartwells is getting into buying local, and we’re working with them to pilot a program in 14 different districts.”

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