Dress It Fresh: Plant Forward School Meal Survey Results

We surveyed school food professionals across the country to find out what makes plant forward meals work in their districts. Here’s what we found.

  • School Food Operations, Salad Bars
  • March 04, 2020
  • By: Allison Ildefonso
  • Comments

Last fall, we partnered with Danone North America to create made-from-scratch dressings using Silk milks (soy and coconut milk). These recipes offer schools a creative way to integrate plant based and plant forward recipes into their school food menus. 

As part of this initiative, we asked school food professionals to share their experience serving plant forward recipes. Thanks to Danone, we awarded entrants with a course scholarship to the School Food Institute! (We still have a few scholarships available; click here to take the survey!)

We’re so excited about the responses we got from school food professionals around the country. Here are our favorite highlights:

  • “The more plant forward meals we are able to put in front of our children, the better. The focus should be on balanced, colorful, and tasty foods that are good for us and our planet.” - Sara Youngbar, Monterey Peninsula Unified School District, Monterey, CA
  • “Parents, staff, and students loved the new [plant forward] menu additions and requested more.” - Jacklyn Aldrich, Chadwick R-1 School District, Chadwick, MO
  • “I have had students eat plant forward meals just because it looks good, then come back later and let us know how good it was.” - Bob Mencimer, Santa Clara Unified School District, Santa Clara, CA
  • “Kids that are vegetarian are happy to have a vegetarian alternative every day.” - Wendy Castro, Better 4 You Meals, Commerce, CA

Plant forward meals in schools

According to our survey, school food teams nationwide are serving up a variety of plant forward options to kids, including:

  • Tomato and vegetable soup
  • Cucumber salad, spinach cran-raisin salad and stuffed bell peppers 
  • Stuffed bell peppers
  • Broccoli and cauliflower pizza crust
  • Roasted kale chips
  • Sloppy lentil
  • Crispy honey garlic and “sticky” tofu
  • “Pizza beans” (white bean stew, pictured above)

Pho Rice Noodle Soup witih Tofu, served at Bellevue School District in Washington and offered at the district's middle and high schools. According to Nutrition Services Director and dietitian Shoko Kumagai, the district experienced record participation for the lauch of this item, then sustained one of the top counts of the month since on the menu.

Schools are also experimenting with plant forward dishes inspired by different ethnic cuisines:

  • Vegetable spring rolls
  • Ratatouille
  • Vegetarian pho with tofu (pictured above)
  • Scratch-made hummus

(Click here for plant based recipes ready for school kitchens!)

Marketing and awareness tactics

Marketing plant forward meal options is an effective way to promote participation, as well as share the health and environmental benefits with students and staff. We have tools and resources available here on The Lunch Box, but survey-takers also shared the ways they spread the word:

“By talking to people one-on-one, and having folks sample the day’s dish, students and teachers are well aware of from-scratch recipes I use.” - Joshua Strassburg, Hope Public Schools, Hope, ME

“Students help cut vegetables and prepare monthly taste tests at the school. Taste tests in the past followed Vermont Harvest of the Month. This year, we focus on international recipes, such as Ratatouille, Mexican Street Corn, Miso Soup, or Middle Eastern Hummus. Information and recipes are shared to all staff via the school and on social media to families.” - Julie Schwetlick, Champlain Valley School District, Hinesburg, VT

“More often, we rely on the food being really tasty and highlighting what makes it great, rather than focusing on the fact that it is plant based.” - Sara Youngbar, Monterey Peninsula Unified School District, Monterey, CA

Shoko Kumagai at Washington's Bellevue School District launched a "Passport to Flavors of the World" Lunch Series to offer different flavors from around the world and the U.S. on school menus. Kumagai has experienced positive support from district administration; the superintendent engages with staff in the kitchen, serving food and engaging with students in the service line. Learn more about their series here.

Additional communication tactics:

  • Menu publication (print and online)
  • Fresh foods placed in clear containers; students can select preferred menu choices
  • Displays
  • Sample plates
  • Try serving menu items that kids typically eat at restaurants (i.e. fried rice, burrito bowls, pad Thai)
  • Advertising school meals in the local newspaper
  • Social media
  • Word-of-mouth through cafeteria employees

Positive feedback and success

Plant forward options served in schools nationwide are being met with open minds and positive feedback. Take a look the success these districts have experienced:

“Students are appreciative that we are offering menu items that they can eat. [They] are loving the vegetable plant based options at the high school.” - Julie Chessen, Ojai Unified School District, Ojai, CA

“Kids have become very excited over time to participate in the taste test prep, which has translated into an increase in trying the prepared taste tests during lunch. The long-term goal is to decrease inhibitions to try new foods in the cafeteria and become more open to trying/eating vegetables in the lunch line and at home. We usually have the kids vote if they liked the taste test, or if they are unsure/would need to try again. The kitchen staff tries to incorporate popular recipes in the regular lunch lineup.” - Julie Schwetlick, Champlain Valley School District, Hinesburg, VT

“Students eat with their eyes. When food is displayed, garnished, and served to them individually, they are more likely to try different things. I have had students eat plant forward meals just because it looks good, then come back later and let us know how good it was.” - Bob Mencimer, Santa Clara Unified School District, Santa Clara, CA

“Because the calorie count is lower and the ingredients are inexpensive, I can serve larger portions. This is a hit with older elementary students.” - Elizabeth Skypeck, Champlain Valley School District, Hinesburg, VT

Why is it important to serve plant forward meals in schools?

We asked survey-takers what makes plant forward meals in schools so important—in their own words. Here’s what they said:

“Nutrition is not only about the health of your body; it’s also about the health of our environment. It’s time to think about how the food we put on our plates affects our environment, and plant forward foods address this game-changing factor.” - Julie Chessen, Ojai Unified School District, Ojai, CA

“Children at a young age need to understand that a balanced, healthful diet is the foundation of a healthy life and the basis to being able to learn,” - Julie Schwetlick, Champlain Valley School District, Hinesburg, VT

“Everyone can see that they can eat what they grow, and that it is not difficult to add variety into your daily menu routine.” - Jacklyn Aldrich, Chadwick R-1 School District, Chadwick, MO

“I had one boy that had never seen a peach that was not from a can. He found out he likes them fresh.” - Cheryl Neyens, Frazee Vergas Public School District #23

“At lunchtime, we have 170 opportunities a year to help kids make choices and establish habits that will contribute to their lifelong health and a cleaner environment. Plant forward meals are healthy, sustainable, use local products, and are kind to the planet.” - Elizabeth Skypeck, Champlain Valley Union

Other responses:

  • Encourages consumption of varieties of foods
  • Gives more options to vegetarian/vegan student in the district
  • Teaches students there are many meal options other than meat, fish, and dairy
  • Critical for the healthy development of our students
  • Gives kids healthier options daily

Want to include plant forward options in your district’s menu cycle?

We launched our plant forward initiative, More Plants Please!, to help districts serve meals that are beneficial to student health, the environment, and even school food finances. Click here for plant forward recipes, tools and resources, and all the info you need to get started!

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