Growing the edge of plant-forward campus dining
Making effective choices for personal health, like choices for the health of our climate, can be complex and sometimes overwhelming. Because those choices meet in the foods we eat, Dining Services is increasing ways for students to improve both personal and planetary health with every meal.
By increasing plant-based options in dining center menus, chefs empower eating choices with greater diversity of flavor, less adverse environmental impact, and a healthier balance of ingredients, choices collectively known as plant-forward cuisine. Dining Services promoted those options in each dining center with its recent Plant-Forward Fridays series.
The Culinary Institute of America defines plant-forward as “a style of cooking and eating that emphasizes and celebrates, but is not limited to: foods from plant sources — fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, plant oils, and herbs and spices — and reflects evidence-based principles of health and sustainability.”
Ben Marks, associate director of Dining Services, says plant-forward dining focuses on "plant-based foods that add new and exciting flavors, textures, experiences, sustainably sourced proteins, and foods that benefit your health within sustainable food systems.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reported with a high degree of confidence that a broad shift toward plant-based diets has high potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
More plant-based dietary patterns offer sundry benefits. "It can help with fiber and nutrient intake. Occasionally reducing red meats from diets or diverting them from the center of the plate by highlighting other ingredients can help reduce saturated fat consumption as well,” said Marks.
Plant-forward dining emphasizes balance, so it takes an inclusive approach to ingredients and menus. “Plant forward is not vegetarian, nor is it animal protein heavy. It encourages chefs to use fresh ingredients and showcase their natural flavors to create a unique dining experience,” said James Zeisler, executive chef at Owens Food Court.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of many leading causes of illness and death in the United States, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and obesity, can be reduced by eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.
While the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends about five cups of fruits and vegetables daily for college-aged people, Dining Services’ most recent survey of student eating habits indicates that less than 6 percent of Virginia Tech female students and less than 3 percent of male students met this recommendation.
Virginia Tech dining has embraced plant-forward on multiple fronts. “We are leaning into the principles of healthy and sustainable menus,” said Marks. “We buy fresh, seasonal, and local. Not just where possible from our industry partners, but through our support of Homefield Farms,” the Dining Services-supported certified organic farm that locally grows around 50,000 pounds of produce for campus dining centers each year.
“We look at ways to incorporate globally inspired flavors and ingredients into our menus,” said Marks. “Our dietitians help review recipes and share input on menu design, portion control, and nutrition. We’ve added plant-forward options to our grab and go products, and we feature plant-based menu options in each of our dining centers.”
“Plant-forward is such a helpful approach because we can market healthy plant-based foods that will attract all students rather than just vegans and vegetarians,” said Ashley Foster, assistant director of nutrition.
“In student focus groups, we hear vegans, vegetarians, and even meat eaters looking to diversify their diet all say that they like seeing more whole plant-based proteins.”
“Getting more nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables in their diet, with more fiber, vitamins, and minerals, may not be intuitive to some students without the alternatives we can provide,” said Foster. “Building in more plant-forward dishes in our menus can help them make lifestyle changes here that can carry throughout their lives.”
While plant-based eating may not be mainstream, its presence is growing among foodies. Vegetarian- and vegan-friendly dishes took seven of the 10 most popular orders on the online ordering platform Grubhub in 2019. That year, Virginia Tech students placed more than 1.2 million orders with Dining Services using Grubhub.
“We hear from our students that they prefer more plant-based options, so it is our job to bring those dishes to life for them,” said Scott Surratt, executive chef of West End Market. “With plant-forward cuisine, there is more thought going into flavor for dishes that were once secondary. By bringing these items to the center of the plate and of our culinary attention, we can give students a more satisfying experience eating them.”
As the experience of food involves more than flavor, this style of cuisine broadens the palate along with the palette. “The vibrant colors from most vegetables also help with the visual appeal,” said Surrat. “We are no longer just steaming vegetables, we are braising, roasting, baking, sautéing, and grilling them to get the most depth. We always work to bring out the most flavor from the foods we offer, so when we conceive a new dish, we think creatively about plant-based options.”
When introducing plant-forward options to their menus, part of the fun and challenge for chefs comes with balancing the familiar and the novel. Randall Van Dyke, executive chef of Dietrick dining center, said “Beside our fast fare, our chef’s plate is our way of doing something a bit different, more artistic. There and with our special events, we can gauge the popularity of a new item and evaluate if it can become part of our regular menu.”
“Our garbanzo-based patty, the banzo burger, was a menu item we made specifically for that shop because we wanted to bring something familiar to students that weren't seeking a vegan or vegetarian diet but looking for more plant-rich fare. A lot of our innovation comes from those moments.”
“The future of plant forward on campus will reflect the students’ desire for healthy and savory dining experiences,” said Van Dyke. “That’s what we’re going to give them, and it’s exciting for us as chefs.”