It started at the snack bar. When Jodi Gruhn’s children came in from the playground, she wanted to be able to offer them healthy, tasty food options – but their choices were severely limited.
“I was shocked when my kids did sporting events to see what kind of food there was for athletes and parents,” Gruhn said. “There weren’t very many options – just blue slushies and hot dogs.”
These options were bad enough, but Gruhn’s two children do not eat meat, so that meant there was often nothing available to them after the big game. And she was not only concerned about her own children’s snack choices: “Every child should have the opportunity to choose an apple or an orange or a hot dog that is not meat-based.”
Gruhn’s desire for more options eventually grew to include all food choices available to children at her children’s school. While her children’s plant-based diets are organically motivated, Gruhn knew that many other children at their school had other reasons for wanting opportunities.
She started volunteering for Sound Minnesota, a program created by the non-profit organization Compassionate action for animals it encourages schools and other institutions in the state to offer plant-based food options to their students and staff. And this spring, she was hired as Wholesome Minnesota’s coordinator. “The idea behind the program is to build awareness of health, environmental and cost benefits by increasing the number of plant-based foods in institutions in Minnesota,” Gruhn said.
As part of her job, Gruhn and her team of volunteers talk to the school’s food service staff Forward food deposit, a program created by Humane Society of the United States, to encourage food providers in K-12 schools to commit to increasing the percentage of plant-based food offerings in their schools.
One of the people Gruhn spoke to was Michael Manning, director of food and nutrition at Richfield Public Schools, whose interest in the program was based on what he heard from students. “Students and their families had asked us for healthier dining options,” Manning said. “They want more culturally appropriate food — and many of those options are already plant-based.”
This summer, Manning signed the Forward Food Pledge and began rolling out plant-based options in the fall, making Richfield Public Schools the first K-12 district in the county to commit to the program. “It seemed like a good idea, so I signed up and committed to doing it,” Manning explained. “They gave us recipes to help us get the program started.”
He said he is excited to incorporate more plant-based foods into the district’s rotating list of menu options. The district is committed to meeting the 20 percent mark by 2024.
Manning said he and his staff have committed to, “Twenty percent of the main courses or at least one item a week will be plant-based. We plan to run the new dishes twice, and if a dish is not acceptable to our children, we end up running something else. ”
Listen to students
Sonny Rodriguez, coordinator of the Humane Society in the U.S. Food Service Innovation Team, said his organization created Forward Food Pledge in response to what they saw as a growing desire among young people to eat more sustainable foods. “Many K-12 schools, universities and hospitals said they would expand what they offer in the plant-based field,” Rodriquez said. “We thought we would put together the resources to help that transition.”
Much of the interest seemed to come from younger people, Rodriguez added. “They are more focused on sustainable opportunities. They take responsibility for plant-based foods. ”
Manning said he sees that trend in his own workplace. “We have a green team on campus. … We started composting in the high school cafeteria. Our students are very health conscious. They are very aware of environmental issues. ”
Growing up in Mississippi, Manning said he and his fellow students rarely questioned the kind of food served in their school cafeteria. “We just came in and ate,” he said. But that’s a different story today: “With the internet and popular culture, children understand more. They ask several questions. ”
Gruhn appreciated how Manning embraced her ideas and was excited to try new recipes. “I think Michael sees this as an opportunity to bring something to his students that they ask for.”
Richfield is home to families from around the world, Manning said. “We have a large Latino population, a growing Somali population, a decent amount of Indian students. This is a diverse population, which makes it fun for us. ”
Manning said he and his staff are committed to offering food options that represent all cultures of the student. Many of these foods happen to be plant-based. “When you look outside of a ‘normal’ American diet, you find that many dishes do not contain meat,” he said. Manning and his team already offer a few options: “There’s a burrito dish with black beans, lo mein, chana masala.”
Not all school food principals have embraced Forward Food as enthusiastically as Manning has, Gruhn said. While receiving some requests for recipes, she added: “There has not been the full embrace like Michaels.”
Rodriguez said he and his colleagues try to emphasize that offering more plant-based options for meal plans actually adds more options for students and does not take them away. “It is important to make it known throughout the school that these changes are being made for a positive reason,” he said.
Saying food choices are “meat-free” or “meat-free” can actually send a message of deprivation, he said; it is better to emphasize what is being achieved, rather than what is being lost: “When schools put these menu items in line, we will give it a good feel and say,“ These are the reasons why we are doing this. We do it for the sustainability aspects, health benefits. ‘”
An upward trend, Manning said, was that with so many goods and industries hit by shortages of supply chains, plant-based food options so far seem easier to find. “When you start looking at the recipes, you realize that the products you need are not the things we’ve seen loads in supply chains with,” he said. “Everyone orders chicken. We order some chickpeas, some black beans. They are much easier to get. ”
Now that students are back at school full-time, Manning said his staff is excited to try the new recipes. “We feed the students breakfast and lunch every day. In some cases, these may be the best – or even the only – meals they get. So it’s fun to be able to give them opportunities. It’s nice to see their faces again and it’s nice to offer them good food. ”