Richfield Public Schools in Richfield, Minn., is expanding the amount of plant-based meals available to students this year.
The plan to incorporate more plant-based options started when a representative from Wholesome Minnesota, a local nonprofit aimed at increasing plant-forward meals served in institutions, reached out Richfield’s Director of Foodservice Michael Manning. The nonprofit suggested that the district sign on to The Humane Society’s Forward Food Pledge, which challenges adoptees to transition 5% of their entrees to plant-based items each year through 2024.
“When she reached out, it just seemed like a no-brainer to partner with them,” says Manning, adding that at the same time, he had been hearing from faculty and students that they wanted more plant-based options on the menu.
Richfield Public Schools officially began its plant-based journey this past summer when the nutrition team met with Wholesome Minnesota and the Humane Society to discuss its goals.
“It was all of us sitting down and talking about what our current menu was, what our staff was like, what our student population was like and what we thought we could accomplish,” says Manning.
The team started off with a goal to have 10% of the main line and 10% of the grill line at its high school be plant-based, and staff specifically sought out recipes that were already plant-based, such as chana masala, or could easily be made without meat.
While the supply chain has been causing havoc for school nutrition programs throughout the country, sourcing ingredients for the plant-based dishes has not been too hard, says Manning, since shelf-stable items such as black beans and chickpeas have been easier to find than traditionally popular K-12 items such as chicken nuggets.
Through signing onto the Forward Food Pledge, the nutrition team has access to training, recipes and other resources provided by the Humane Society and Wholesome Minnesota. Outside vendors have also reached out to help evolve the menu, Manning says.
Letting students decide
Instead of promoting the new dishes on a specific day such as “meatless Monday,” the new items are introduced randomly, typically once per week, so students don’t feel like something is being taken away.
“Our kind of commitment that we talked about in our first meeting was that we would try an item a couple times and see if the students liked it, and then if [they do], it would stay. If they don't like it, we would take it off,” says Manning. “And [we would] just keep trying new things until we found the mix that works best for our students.”
The new dishes are being introduced to just high-schoolers for now. If they are met favorably, over time they will be introduced to younger students as well.
So far, students have generally been receptive to the new items, especially after being introduced to them a couple of times.
“We're learning that it just takes a little time for them,” says Manning, “They need options. They need to just see the thing over and over, and then they start coming around.”
The team is also figuring out the best ways to present and serve the new items. When staff first served a black bean burrito bowl, for example, they had students go down the line and build their own bowls, similar to the process at Chipotle and other fast casuals. However, they found that students were confused and didn’t really know what they were getting.
“We realized when you looked at it, it looked like just a line of some veggies,” says Manning. “[...] So, by the second lunchtime, we started building the bowl for them, so they could see it completed.”
Students will continue to drive the menu selection as the district rolls out additional plant-based items, and Manning believes that schools looking to introduce similar dishes should also let their students lead the way.
“Let this be student driven, and let the numbers kind of speak for themselves. Give [students] the option and see if that's what they want,” he says. “Don't be afraid to change it either. If it's not working, just change.”