Southwest Foodservice Excellence's recipe-driven, plant-based trial reduces carbon emissions significantly

With the help of the Humane Society of the United States, the foodservice provider conducted a 4-week trial of plant-based meals.
Plant-based offering
Southwest Foodservice Excellence currently menus about 35 plant-based recipes. | Photo courtesy of Southwest Foodservice Excellence.

Southwest Foodservice Excellence (SFE), a K-12 focused foodservice provider with an emphasis on scratch cooking, just finished conducting a 4-week pilot of plant-based meals in 9 schools. The pilot, put on with help from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), resulted in the foodservice provider eliminating over 16,300 lbs. of greenhouse gas emissions, according to a statement.

SFE accomplished this by merely swapping out two recipes for plant-based meals each week. The pilot program also included training sessions for SFE chefs, general managers and dietitians. New recipes included healthy, plant-based, flavorful items, such as the enchilada bowl, sweet potato and black bean chili, buddha bowl and the tofu Bahn mi bowl.

According to SFE’s CEO Monty Staggs, the pilot was a success, and diners were quick to get on board with the new recipes. But of course, some diners are hesitant to try new things, so many SFE locations sampled the recipes at its “Flex your Plate” concept.

“SFE developed the 'Flex Your Plate' concept to encourage students to try new menu options, which allows students to taste test various items before deciding on their meal for the day,” said Staggs.

Taste testing and gathering student feedback on the recipes was a big part of the pilot program, he said.  

“SFE is dedicated to gathering student feedback as a part of our menu development process. We actively solicit feedback, listen to our students and act upon that feedback, which drives participation and builds trust. Once that trust is established, students are more open to experiment and try new foods that they may not otherwise be open to,” said Staggs.

SFE’s culinary team also spends time throughout the year researching trends and gathering feedback from diners.

“Feedback from students indicate that they are looking for recipes that reflect the choice and retail experiences they get outside of school, and plant-based options are a part of that,” said Staggs.

Another way the team has encouraged diners to try plant-based foods is through marketing ingredients and flavor profiles, rather than simply labeling items as vegan or vegetarian.

“With any new menu item, we found that by focusing on ingredient and flavor profiles in recipe names we can increase participation from students who may not usually go for an option that is meatless or vegan,” said Staggs.

In addition to intentionally naming the recipes, the SFE team promoted the pilot program through cafeteria signage and a social media campaign. Staggs said the marketing efforts were helpful in getting diners on board with the program.

“Through our efforts, we found that marketing the environmental benefits of the plant-based entrees actually increased participation among students,” he said.

SFE has long offered plant-forward fare and will continue to do so in the future, said Staggs. The foodservice provider is committed to increasing its plant-based offerings by 10% by 2025.

“SFE serves several districts with large vegan and vegetarian populations, so offering plant-based options is essential to meeting the needs of the local communities we operate in. SFE is committed to understanding what is most important to our students and the communities we serve and, with each new district partnership, we listen for the students' voices first,” said Staggs. “They tell us what they like and want to see, and we work from there to create a meaningful menu that meets their needs.”

SFE plans on reaching its goal by testing new plant-based recipes in schools across the country.  The company currently has 35 plant-based recipes on its menu, and has plans to incorporate new recipes from the pilot program into select menus in the fall.




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