What Gen Z wants to eat

When Chris Burkhardt came to Cleveland Metropolitan School District a little more than a year ago, he came with the goal of offering students meals that reflected what they would find outside of school. As the district’s new executive director for school nutrition, he knew he had to shift the district’s menu offerings to appeal to students’ eating habits.

Roughly 40% of Generation Z (those born between 1993 and 2000) eat their food on the go, more than any other generation, according to Technomic’s 2018 Generational Consumer Trend Report.

In an attempt to appeal to Gen Z’s constant, on-the-move lifestyle, the nutrition team set a goal to offer a majority of its menu items in a handheld format. While some dishes such as soup and salad, which are now placed in to-go cups, were easier to transition, others have been a little more difficult to convert.

“We had to get a little creative,” Burkhardt says. “The vessel for holding things is probably the hardest. We’ve gone back and forth in kind of finding what works and what doesn’t. That’s still a work in progress.” 

One of the team’s more creative transformations was converting chicken Parmesan into a dish that students can eat on the run. The team offers the dish as a sandwich served on a hamburger bun. 

"Students these days are not just sitting down at a table." —Chris Burkhardt

Other dishes still need a few tweaks. For example, the team is working to perfect its barbecue chicken panini, which is currently served wrapped in foil like a burrito. Burkhardt says the foil wrapping is “not an ideal situation” because it’s messy when students try and take it from the serving line.

Although the transition to handheld has brought challenges, roughly 75% to 80% of the district’s menu items are now handheld. And most importantly, they have been well-received by the students, Burkhardt says.

“Students these days are not just sitting down at a table. They’re more social. They’re up and moving maybe with a phone or tablet with one hand or up at a computer doing work,” he says. “There’s a lot of different scenarios where students have to be a little bit more portable with their food options versus what was going on five, ten, fifteen years ago.”

Fresh from the farm

This summer, the Housing and Food Services department at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa., announced a $50,000 contribution from auxiliary and business services to go toward the school’s student farm. The influx of cash will help support paid student interns and an assistant farm manager.

For three years now, the student farm has worked in tandem with Housing and Food Services, supplying dining halls with produce such as tomatoes, cucumbers, kale, thyme, parsley and more. Compost from the dining halls is also sent over to the farm. 

Senior Director of Enterprise Services James Richard says that the idea and creation of the farm were spearheaded by the students themselves.

“The entire student farm effort is organized through a student organization here at University Park,” he says. “It’s managed and operated by the students, for the students. At its very genesis, it’s a student, ground-up effort.

Penn State’s students’ desire for fresh, local foods falls in line with national trends. According to Technomic’s 2017 College and University Consumer Trend Report, 45% of college students—most of whom are members of Gen Z—say it’s important to use fresh ingredients, and 44% say it’s important that their school is transparent about how ingredients are sourced.

“There’s a lot of different scenarios where students have to be a little bit more portable with their food options versus what was going on five, ten, fifteen years ago.” —Chris Burkhardt

The Housing and Dining Services team also hosts monthly meetings with the student farmers to go over upcoming menu cycles and other logistics.

Throughout the year, students from the farm visit the dining halls to educate their peers on what’s currently growing at the farm. Students are also treated to meals using nothing but hyper-local ingredients from the student farm and other surrounding farms twice a semester.

Richard says he hopes the partnership will continue to grow in the future, especially as the farm adds more interns.

“We’re hoping to have an opportunity for our intern pool to interact with [the farm’s] intern pool and sort of cross-pollinate the effort around the student farm and residential dining.”

Photograph: Shutterstock



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