Plant-based for better health... MDining co-hosts Forward Food Summit

Susan Thwing
Release Date: 

More than 80 representatives from universities and institutions across the country visited campus last week for the Forward Food Leadership Summit, a free, day-long event where food service industry professionals from K-12 schools, colleges and universities, hospitals, business, and other sectors learned how to meet the growing demand for plant-based food. The event was hosted by the Humane Society of the United States and Michigan Dining at the University of Michigan.

Held in the Rackham Auditorium, guests heard from experts on how they are meeting and capitalizing on the ever-growing demand for plant-based meals. The event included presentations, panel discussions, and a cooking demonstration. Research from Mintel, a leading market intelligence agency, found that 58 percent of consumers are interested in eating less meat. This summit addressed how to achieve a more profitable, healthy and sustainable dining operation by adding more plant-based foods to the menu. 

“Students at the University of Michigan can be proud that their university’s dining services team is a leader in the Midwest for promoting sustainable food. Industry professionals from other universities, K-12 schools, and hospitals learned from Michigan’s example about how to bring delicious, plant-based options to the dining halls,” says Michelle Hensley, the Humane Society of the United States, Outreach Coordinator, Food and Nutrition. “Leadership training events like this are so important because plant-based eating is gaining popularity across the country, and foodservice professionals are working hard to meet the demand to create more great-tasting, plant-based meals.”

Keith Soster, director of sustainability and Student Engagement for Michigan Dining and an event organizer, says the difference between plant-based and vegetarian is that vegetarian is the elimination of animal proteins while planted-based is focused on whole, unprocessed foods and reductions in meat proteins animal proteins or avoidance of meat proteins increasing consumption of plant proteins.

The summit helped share those methods.

“The summit was well received and the audience was engaged and asked panelists great questions. Hearing from experts in the field they learned how to focus on plant-based food and how we as an industry can increase plant-based options to increase health and wellness among our constituents,” says Soster.

Grace Lo, a first-year MPH student on the dietetics track, says the conference “provided a meaningful perspective of eating behavior on environmental consequences. I felt encouraged that I could affect change simply by choosing more sustainable options at the grocery store or restaurants...As an assistant in kids’ cooking classes, I have found that the most discriminating of kids enjoy colorful meals, which is easy to do in plant-centric meals. I think the event did a good job of emphasizing that vegan/vegetarianism menu labels do not need to be idealized because it can be polarizing. Instead, focusing on colors, taste, and flavor is the best way to get the general public to adopt a more plant-based diet and thus a more healthful diet.”

Barbara Hagan, U-M Sustainability Program Manager, who also participated in the conference says “The presentations were great. I loved that the perspectives were different with the common theme to reduce processed and red meat products: save the planet and save your personal health,” adding that “The U.S. diet is off track.  These reminders that our red meat consumption and processed food consumption are contributing to GhG emissions and declining health in the population are very important. I am looking at my own eating habits and will use the information that I received to spread the word.”

MDining is increasingly incorporating more plant-based foods into its dining hall menu.

“The Humane Society of the United States supported our efforts with training for our entire chef staff around vegan and vegetarian options. We work closely with the campus farm to support the students efforts in growing local and sustainable food which in turn creates a closed loop system- a great model for a healthy food system,” Soster says.

The Campus Farm will play a vital role in the process.

“They support us growing greens in the four hoop houses they have and students know where their food is coming from,” he explains. “They also work to educate and promote healthy eating, collaborate with dining staff and chefs as well as other student-focused sustainability organizations on campus. The farm is also utilized as a living lab for those engaged in sustainability through their classwork.”

Soster says the conference was attended last year in Chicago by MDining’s senior dining director, Stephen Mangan. “He was a speaker as U-M is using concepts from Menus of Change to institute healthier options in the dining hall while increasing options for vegan, vegetarians, and flexitarians. Future Forward Food conferences will be presented by the Humane Society of the United States around the country as more and more institutions address environmental inequities, social justice issues, and health and well being.”