Plant-based meat meets the campus dining hall

Dining services expand offerings of ‘meatless meats’ to satisfy students and introduce alternatives
By: | Issue: November/December, 2019
October 7, 2019
Plant-based burgers and other protein alternatives are making a more frequent appearance on campus dining hall menus. Photo: Yale UniversityPlant-based burgers and other protein alternatives are making a more frequent appearance on campus dining hall menus. Photo: Yale University

With Burger King’s Impossible Whopper making its U.S. debut this summer and McDonald’s announcing a test of a Beyond Meat patty in Canada this fall, awareness of “meatless meat” may be at an all-time high. College students at some institutions, however, have had on-campus access to plant-based proteins for some time. 

When representatives from Beyond Meat hosted an awareness campaign at Yale University in 2017, more than 2,000 students attended to learn more about the popular plant-based burgers. Interest has been so high for similar events, organizers have created a lottery system to distribute tickets.

“More than 80% of our menus are plant-based,” says dietician Allison Arnett. “Alternative meats are products that students enjoy and want to see in the dining halls.”

Beyond Meat is just one of the plant-based proteins served in the dining halls at Yale. The culinary team also uses alternative meats to make dishes ranging from tacos and burgers to chicken Parmesan and shepherd’s pie. The school has been serving the so-called meatless meats for more than a decade, and the menu continues expanding.

Students’ voracious appetites for plant-based offerings has more recently led colleges, including Cornell University (New York), Unity College (Maine), Vanderbilt University (Tennessee) and the University of Chicago, to include plant-based proteins in their meal plans. Bon Appétit Management Co., Sodexo, Chartwells and Aramark are among the dining services providers going beyond meat. A 2018 Aramark survey found that 23% of college students would choose plant-based foods all of the time, and 30% would choose them most of the time.

Chartwells Higher Education has more than 2,200 vegan recipes in its database and the number continues to grow, says Laura Lapp, vice president of sustainability and culinary services. In addition to popular Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger brands, Lapp says plant-based crumbles are used in dishes such as Thai tacos and tandoori bowls; even breakfast has gotten a vegetarian makeover with soy sausages and other vegetable-based and vegan meat products replacing conventional meat.

Meat(less) marketing to vegetarians and flexitarians

The student demand is about more than avoiding meat. In fact, Arnett believes that omnivores are just as apt to order an entree made with plant-based proteins as vegans. In its marketing materials, Chartwells highlights the great taste, not just the absence of animal proteins.

“[Our] greatest success has been to focus on the flavor profiles and creating really great tasting options,” Lapp says. “With more students identifying as flexitarians, meaning they consciously choose to eat meatless meals more often, we identify our vegan and vegetarian offerings but keep the marketing focus on the unique flavor profiles and culinary stories.”

Behind the scenes, the focus is on managing costs and prioritizing food safety. Some meatless meats do cost more than their conventional counterparts. Rather than increasing meal plan fees to cover the higher prices, Adam Millman, senior director of dining at Yale, focuses on balancing the cost of the overall menu.

“The Beyond Meat burger is not a product we’re selling hundreds of every day,” he says. “On the days we do offer it, we look at the overall menu and offset [its higher cost] with things that have a little bit of a lower cost.”

At Yale, all plant-based proteins are made to order. The culinary team will use separate kitchen equipment to prepare the dishes if students request it. Lapp warns that some meatless meats could contain allergens, and suggests checking ingredient labels to ensure preparation is in line with campus policies for allergens.

Prioritizing the inclusion of plant-based proteins can help satisfy student appetites and sustainability goals, Lapp says, adding, “All the industry data we have seen predicts meatless options are going to continue to trend high in popularity.”