At Kent State University in Ohio, student feedback is a key part of menu development.
The dining team solicits feedback throughout the year, but a special plant-forward event gives students the opportunity to vote on what items will make the menu.
The team hosted its second annual plant-based vendor fair, dubbed Good Food Better Earth, in April. There, plant-based products were on display in creative recipes, and students were invited to taste them. After trying the products, students could scan a QR code and rate the offerings, as well as provide their comments.
The event was aimed to facilitate student feedback and create a more inclusive menu, according to Sarah Korzan, registered dietitian and assistant director of Kent State’s culinary services.
“Inclusivity in dining is always important because food is so personal to everyone,” she said, noting that getting student feedback “helps us to build that menu mix moving forward. So that we not only know what they want, but they feel like they’re included in the decision and their preferences matter.”
Putting the vision into action
Jacob Kuehn, senior director of culinary services at Kent State, said the vendor show started with a simple vision—creating an interactive dining experience for students.
“I thought like leaning on some of our vendors to provide an experience to students on campus similar to NACUFS [National Association of College and University Food Services] or the National Restaurant Association [Show] or any other hospitality conference … that’s an opportunity for vendors to come to campus and share some new items and samples, and ultimately build excitement,” he said.
From there, the idea shifted to center around plant-based offerings and sustainability. “We had to take a step back and kind of, you know, think—could we make it a robust experience by just offering plant-forward and vegan and sustainable?” said Kuehn.
The team shared its vision with the university’s food distributor, US Foods, which helped gather vendors for the event.
They also took inspiration from the NACUFS show, Korzan said. “We saw products there that we decided oh that would be a really good fit for our campus, but we thought oh well, try it at the vendor fair first to get that student feedback.”
The team chose the featured products strategically, trying to home in on what diners want. Korzan said students had been asking for vegan cheese slices at the deli, so they decided to test those out at the vendor fair.
At last year’s event, the team tested oat milk after students had been asking for more milk alternatives than the soy milk offered. They later added Oatly milk products and soft serve to the menu.
Responding to student demand
The team focused on plant-based offerings because they’ve noticed increased demand for plant-forward fare. During the 2022-23 school year, Korzan said that over 40% of incoming freshmen identified as eating plant-based in some way.
Currently, the university offers a vegan station within the residential dining halls, and diners can find vegan and plant-forward options at a variety of other dining concepts. The team has even shifted to using vegan mayo as the standard in some of its recipes.
“We’ve worked very diligently to make sure that [items in] all of our made-to-order spaces in our all you-care-to-eat facilities can be made vegan and gluten-friendly, as well as our retail spaces,” Korzan said. “We’ve put vegan and gluten-friendly options there so that our students that do prefer to eat this way aren’t feeling confined to just that one station.”
She noted that it has been her personal goal this year to build dining inclusivity and ensure that all diners have options.
Last year, 300 to 400 students attended the vendor show, and the team brought a variety of new offerings to the menu afterwards, including a plant-based samosa and vegan cheese shreds, which allowed them to add vegan pizza to the menu.
This year, the team saw almost double the number of attendees, about 600 students. Now the team is currently deciding on what offerings will make the menu, based on student feedback and operational needs, said Korzan.