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How K-12 and college dining are tackling current foodservice challenges

Labor, supply, sustainability, authenticity and health are impacting what directors and chefs are putting on the menu.
Menus of Change panel
Left to right: Cristopher Williams, Matt Tebbit, Marie Molde and Katie Wilson; photo courtesy of Culinary Institute of America/Menus of Change Leadership Summit

Today’s students have different values and priorities when it comes to eating, and college and K-12 foodservice programs are evolving to keep up with them.

That was the consensus of the panel “Gen Z, Plant-Forward and the Protein Shift: Innovations in College Dining and K-12,” presented at the 2022 Menus of Change Leadership Summit last week at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Marie Molde, a panel participant from Chicago research firm Datassential, shared survey results that pinpointed the food preferences of Gen Z.

Although 71% of Americans classify themselves as meat eaters, only 65% of Gen Zers do. And 36% consider themselves “meat limiters,” compared to 29% of the general population.

But the data further parses the attitudes of students 18 and over—a subgroup of Gen Z. Despite eating less meat, this group consumes more protein: 26% eat poultry daily, compared to 12% of Americans overall, and 21% choose plant-based meat and eggs daily, compared to 7% of all eaters. While younger consumers gravitate toward plant-based proteins, students skew higher than Gen Z as a whole as well as millennials.

“One can say that education and age drive students to consume more protein,” says Molde.

Students also show a stronger preference for beans, lentils, nuts and seafood, finds Datassential, so colleges can catch their interest by building protein-centric meals around these foods, especially those with global roots. And be sure to make that an authentic version of a global dish—not fusion, Molde says.

The student demographic also has ongoing environmental concerns. The data reveals that 69% of students view climate change as extremely or very important, 14 percentage points higher than the general population. And 83% believe that the type of material used to package food has a notable impact on the environment.

Meeting the challenges

College and K-12 foodservice teams are addressing these preferences on menus, but they’re also grappling with the challenges currently facing all operators: supply chain snags, labor shortages, food waste and inflation, according to the panelists.

Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, gets kids to eat more plant-forward dishes through simple marketing moves. “We changed ‘Meatless Mondays’ to ‘Magnificent Mondays’ to talk up flavor, and we play up the power of fruits and vegetables as ‘nature’s amazing pharmacy,’” she says.

Wilson also lets the kids come up with their own names for plant-forward dishes and has worked with manufacturers to develop a compostable round plate with a well for a milk container to take the place of Styrofoam.

But supply-challenged distributors are cutting schools from their customer base, she says. School foodservice programs have notoriously strict budgets and “distributors would rather deliver to higher-profit customers,” says Wilson. “We’re not getting enough of the food we want.”

Matt Tebbit, head of residential catering and bars at the University of Reading in England, is facing similar challenges across the pond.

“We learned not to be reliant on next-day delivery,” he says, and labor is also hampering his menu mix.

“We’re cooking everything from scratch, but can’t get chefs to do the work,” says Tebbit. His university has started a culinary training program to help fill the talent void.

At University of North Texas in Denton, chef Cristopher Williams is trying to take the supply chain out of the equation at the all-vegan dining hall he heads up, Mean Greens Cafe.

“Ninety-five percent of our menu is made up of produce,” he says. “The fruits and vegetables we need don’t always get shipped, so we started growing our own hydroponically.” Among the crops are leafy greens, herbs, okra and beans.

As far as global dishes go, Williams taps students for input on items like vegan pho and Indian curries. “During Diwali [the festival of lights] in the fall, the Indian students do all the cooking, and the dining staff acts as sous chefs,” he says.

Wilson brought in students' mothers and grandmothers to teach school cooks how to prepare global recipes and explain what they should look and taste like. “If we don’t get it right, the kids will nail us to the wall,” she says.

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