In an effort to promote a healthier lifestyle and reduce their environmental impact, top universities across the country and even the world are putting an emphasis on meat-free and plant-based menus. 

The University of Texas at Austin recently announced that it is launching Sustainable Mondays, encouraging students to choose vegetarian options at least once a week. The initiative aims to inform students about the nutritional and sustainability benefits of a plant-based diet through a variety of channels, including infographics, flyers, and posters placed strategically around dining areas.

Keith Morrison, the director of culinary of University Housing and Dining (UHD), highlighted the growing trend of individuals adopting a more plant-based lifestyle. “We have more students and more people in the world who are trying to eat a healthier lifestyle and realize that animal proteins can weigh you down and are not as healthy for you,” Morrison said

UHD is aligning its menus with this shift, catering to the rising number of vegans, vegetarians, and flexitarians. Contrary to the misconception that plant-based diets sacrifice taste, UHD ensures that their vegetarian and vegan options are both nutritious and flavorful. In fact, the school recently sampled a soy-based product called Planetarian, which offers a Southwestern flavor profile in street tacos.

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To enhance student engagement, UHD plans to employ visual aids such as flyers and posters showcasing the benefits of Sustainable Mondays. These efforts extend beyond the dining halls, encouraging students to make conscious food choices and explore the world of plant-based meals.

The environmental benefits of a plant-based diet are significant, including reduced carbon footprint, lowered emissions, and decreased water and land waste. UHD has committed to decreasing greenhouse gasses and emissions by 25 percent by the year 2030.

In addition to the environmental benefits, there are extensive health benefits associated with adopting a plant-based diet, even if it’s just once a week. Reduced susceptibility to inflammation and diabetes, plus improved brain health are among the positive outcomes.

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A landmark study by foodservice provider Sodexo Campus at three universities found that when students are presented with a plant-based option as default, an overwhelming majority (81 percent) will choose it. 

Vegan options at universities

Some of the efforts to bring more plant-based options to universities and colleges across the country is coming from foodservice providers. Earlier this year, Nestlé Professional developed the Purpose-Driven Plant-Based Incubator program in partnership with the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (UMass) and four-time James Beard Award Winner Chef Michel Nischan, founder of national food equity nonprofit Wholesome Crave.

More than 12 universities signed up to participate in the program, including the University of Minnesota Duluth; Kent State University; Vanderbilt University; the University of California, Santa Barbara; Montreal’s Concordia University; and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Collectively, this year’s participants serve 500,000 students per day. 

The Purpose-Driven Plant-Based Incubator program was inspired by the fact that 25 percent of global emissions come from the food system, the majority of which is attributable to animal agriculture.

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The program includes a “Playbook” with recipes that feature plant-based proteins from Nestlé -owned brand Sweet Earth (such as enchiladas, breakfast sandwiches, and bucatini bolognese), together with Wholesome Crave’s soups. The program is also designed to be a testing ground for protocols developed to help students choose—and come back to—plant-based options while helping streamline operations to aid with the ease of adoption of a plant-forward menu shift. 

“At Nestlé Professional, we’re committed to helping our partners address the new realities of the foodservice landscape. This Purpose-Driven Plant-Based Incubator does just that—it showcases plant-forward recipes while providing guidance on how to reduce operators’ and students’ carbon footprints,” Perry Miele, president and CEO of Nestlé Professional, said in a statement.

In addition to Nestlé Professional, other major food service providers—including Sodexo and Aramark—have also committed to offering a growing number of plant-based options to their clients, including universities. Doing so helps them achieve their own climate goals while providing high-demand foods to their clients.

Plant-based in the UK

Over in the United Kingdom, students at the University of Warwick in England also recently voted in favor of a motion that calls for their student union to adopt 100-percent plant-based catering by the 2027–2028 academic year and 50 percent by 2024–2025. 

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This decision positions Warwick as the eighth student union in the United Kingdom to adopt such a motion, following in the footsteps of Stirling, Cambridge, Birmingham, London Metropolitan, Queen Mary University of London, University College London, and Kent.

After several days of polling in Warwick’s All-Student Vote, the motion received 53 percent of the votes, with 774 students voting in favor, 518 against, and 180 abstentions. 

Plant-Based Universities, which assisted the University of Warwick and other universities in their campaigns, is an international initiative of students who are pushing for their universities and student unions to adopt 100-percent plant-based catering. The campaign is active in over 75 institutions, with the group encouraging interested students to sign up to run local campaigns.

“We are delighted to see this straightforward and sensible motion pass with huge backing across the university today. This marks a clear step in the right direction for our university,” Vivek Venkatram, President of Warwick’s Vegan and Vegetarian Society, said in a statement. 

“The need for a plant-based food system has never been so urgent, and universities, as social, cultural, and political leaders, need to step up and show the way,” Venkatram added.

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