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Operations unleash a bumper crop of plant-forward snacks

Veggie Wrap
Photograph: Salisbury University

The phrase “between-meal snacks” is as passe as the flip phone. For students, busy employees and active retirees, snacks frequently make the meal. Consumers are snacking an average of 2.8 times a day, according to Technomic’sSnacking Occasion Consumer Trend Report, and 66% agree that having a snack in place of a meal can be part of a healthy diet.

While a good percentage of chips, dips, sweets and other packaged snack foods are meat-free, today’s snackers are looking for healthier, more substantial vegan and vegetarian options.

In 2011, University of North Texas (UNT) in Denton opened Mean Greens, the first vegan dining hall on a U.S. college campus, paving the way for the foodservice team to jump on the snacking trend with plant-based items. The result: a wide variety of vegan grab-and-go snacks at the university’s retail outlets and other venues.

Box it in a bento

Bento Box Veggies

Shelley McGinnis, garde manger chef in UNT’s dining department, developed snacks designed to fit a portable bento-style box with four compartments. The Green Pack, for example, contains two kinds of quinoa, kale and fruit or a Brussels sprouts salad, while another is in the works with three types of hummus and a choice of dippers, such as crackers or raw veggies. These bento boxes are the next iteration of the university’s 9-ounce snack bowls, such as one filled with cooked quinoa mixed with cooked butternut squash, kale, dried cranberries and apples.

“A lot of students who work in my kitchen are vegans or vegetarians, and I often get ideas from them for menu items,” McGinnis says.

That collaboration spurred the idea to expand basic hummus with flavorful ingredients: Fire-roasted jalapeno, roasted garlic, and black bean with cumin and lime are now in the lineup. Single varieties are currently packed in a cup with bagel or pita chips.

Rice paper wraps are a favorite snack option among the students who eat meat, with tuna, chicken and turkey on offer. McGinnis is in the process of developing a plant-based option for fall. She plans on using tofu for the protein and swapping out a dairy-based sauce for a vegan sauce.

“We can make almost anything vegan,” she says.

Hummus for all

Vegan Bento Box

Bento boxes are also a popular option at Salisbury University in Salisbury, Md.

“The packaging provides a more upscale, healthier snack,” says Kevin Bowes, the college’s retail dining director of operations. “We realigned our grab-and-go options to tie into portable snacking and offer more responsible portion sizes.”

Instead of a 12-ounce cup filled with just grapes or carrot sticks, customers now can snack on hummus and veggies, or build a salad on a base of spinach by adding vegetarian ingredients such as cherry tomatoes and mozzarella cheese instead of croutons and bacon. Dietitian Terry Passano made sure each box included a variety of colors as well as a variety of fresh ingredients, with strawberries, red peppers, apples and grapes among the choices.

The bento boxes address student demand for more plant-forward, sustainable options, Bowes says. They are made and delivered daily to Salisbury’s Fresh Xpress line and students can use their dining dollars to purchase the snacks.

“The Fresh Xpress business has doubled in the last seven months,” Bowes says, adding that students have responded positively to the freshness of the snacks and the convenience of nutritious grab-and-go items when there’s little time to eat between classes.

Mimicking meat

Customers who patronize the four cafes run by Swedish Health Services in Seattle sometimes crave “meatier” plant-based snacks, says Corporate Executive Chef Zach Schwab. He worked with a local company to introduce a new crispy vegan nugget, a product made with vegetable protein that closely resembles chicken nuggets in taste and texture.

“Customers can order a half order of nuggets as a snack, and they’ve been a huge hit,” Schwab says. “We sold over 30 pounds the first day.”

Several dipping sauces are available with the nuggets, including ranch, sweet chile and barbecue.

Schwab is also offering more meatless snacks on the patient side. These include a Mediterranean plate featuring naan bread, romaine leaves, Kalamata olive mix, hummus and tzatziki. Schwab is also developing an avocado spread to add to the roster.

“We’ve found that both patients and staff are looking for plant-based options to support this lifestyle in a hospital setting,” he says.

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