Environmental health was as strong a theme as human health at the 2019 Menus of Change Summit, a joint initiative of the Culinary Institute of America and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health held in mid-June. Plant-forward cooking demos and discussions continue to be a focus of the conference, but attention was also paid to impactful issues such as biodiversity, climate change and world hunger.
Much of the programming evolved from the recently published report by the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health, which painted a rather grim picture of what world health and food production will look like in 2050. The foodservice industry must continue to make progress with plant-forward eating and address other imminent challenges in order to feed 10 billion people healthy diets from sustainable food systems 30 years from now, attendees learned. Here are six ways to take action.
1. Go for a different grain
Fonio, a largely unexplored grain in the millet family, has an excellent nutrition and sustainability profile. The protein-rich grain grows quickly and requires little water, which allows farmers in West Africa to harvest up to four crops a year. Chef Pierre Thiam—a Senegalese chef who recently opened Teranga, a pan-African concept in New York City—uses fonio as a base for build-your-own bowls that may also include sweet potatoes, okra and other vegetables. Fonio is smaller in size than millet, so it cooks quickly to four or five times its volume. During a demo at the conference, Thiam created fonio sushi, swapping in the grain for rice. It also works well in stuffings, pilafs, breakfast porridge, crepes and other applications.
2. Source for biodiversity
To combat climate change and promote sustainability, the future of food must be biodiverse, said Mike Lee, co-founder of Alpha Food Labs, a food and drink innovation company. Two-thirds of the food we eat comes from 12 plants and five animals, Lee said. To encourage biodiversity, he reverses the sourcing paradigm by asking farmers what they want to sell to him and charged chefs and operators to do the same, thus creating dishes from underutilized plants. Alpha Food Labs launched Crop Crackers, inspired by crop rotations. They’re made from winter wheat and flax.
3. Start with the seed
Casey Gleason, VP of food and beverage for Sweetgreen, said the fast casual introduced more biodiverse sourcing by starting at the seed level. “We bought 100,000 seeds of a vegetable we never heard of—koginut squash—and gave them to six farmers to plant,” he said. The result was 26 acres of squash, which Sweetgreen turned into a seasonal LTO, selling 120,000 koginut squash bowls across its 90-plus locations. “Customers are more ready for this than ever before. … Give them the opportunity to effect change,” Gleason said. Preserving diversity through seed banks can help mitigate the effects of climate change, according to Crop Trust, which also presented at Menus of Change.
4. Pump the brakes on plant-based meats
Mimicking burgers and meatballs with fake meat can help move consumers toward a plant-forward diet, but it has to be done in conjunction with vegetable creativity. “The Impossible Burger is like a nicotine patch,” said Walter Willett, professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “It can help ease the transition, but it’s not the healthiest option.” Housemade veggie burgers may be more labor intensive, but they have simpler, cleaner ingredient lists.
5. Menu more kinds of vegetables
A tasty way to foster biodiversity is to menu a different vegetable every week, said Anahita Dhondy, chef-owner of a cafe in Mumbai. Adding a lesser-known, highly nutritious crop such as moringa to the salad bar or subbing purple yams for white potatoes can be a win-win for health and the planet. She suggests patterning American dishes after Indian food, embracing a wide variety of vegetables.
At Clover Food Lab, a 12-unit fast casual that is “erasing the carbon footprint by swapping meat for plants,” founder Ayr Muir doesn’t let the four seasons limit his menu’s seasonality. Some local produce may be in season for just a week, and the brand embraces that, he said. “When a vegetable runs out, we cross it off the list and go on to the next. This connects deeply with our customers.”
6. Boost others’ food IQ
“Food knowledge should be a core tenet of the culture,” said Becky Mulligan, CEO of The Little Beet restaurant chain. To get buy-in, she advocates bringing the team along when introducing any new plant—from sourcing to serving—so they can learn about it and relay the information to guests.
Yale University’s dining program has evolved from transactional to transformational, said Rafi Taherian, associate VP for Yale Hospitality. He and his team bring subject matter experts to campus—anthropologists, environmentalists, industry experts and chefs from other countries—to discuss plant-forward diets and other eating styles from all points of view. For students, this “experiential dining is improving food literacy,” he said.