How can you help students make environmentally friendly food choices? Sodexo Campus—which aims to make 50 percent of its meals plant-based by 2025—just conducted a landmark study that uncovered the answer.
The foodservice provider worked with nonprofit Food for Climate League and the think tank Better Food Foundation to switch its approach by flipping meat-based entrées to plant-based meals by default. This was done at three schools: Tulane University in New Orleans, LA, Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY.
The study evaluated a single dining hall station that featured eight pairs of dishes, each consisting of one meat-based and one plant-based option. This assessment took place during 35 lunch periods at the three universities.
During the plant-default day, only the plant-based option was presented, but students could ask for the meat-based dish if they preferred. On the control day, both meat and plant-based dishes were presented together.
And the results were dramatic as 81 percent of students chose plant-based entrées when they were available as the default option.
“Having plant-based foods isn’t a buzz or a trend, it’s a need and a demand that we deliver with creativity and flavor,” Brett Ladd, CEO for the Sodexo US Campus division, said in a statement.
“We also recognize that reducing our animal-based food purchases is a key part of our carbon reduction strategy,” Ladd said. “Having the plant entrée as the default demonstrated that people are open to trying and enjoying plant-based options with the added benefit of helping the planet.”
Sodexo meeting climate goals with plant-based meals
Any way you slice it, choosing plant-based foods instead of animal products is a more sustainable move.
Ralph Ravi Kayden/Unsplash
Sodexo’s commitment to plant-based options is part of its greater sustainability goals, which is to slash carbon emissions by 34 percent by 2025. And making it easier for students to choose plant-based meals will help it get there.
That’s because during the study period, Sodexo Campus slashed its greenhouse gas emissions by 24 percent.
“Companies like Sodexo have made ambitious climate commitments that they can only achieve by serving more plant-based foods,” Food for Climate League founder and Executive Director Eve Turow-Paul said in a statement.
“The challenge for foodservice leadership is how to make this shift while keeping students and staff satisfied,” Turow-Paul said. “Behavioral nudges, including defaults, are a powerful addition to their toolkit for achieving this goal.”
But can implementing plant-based as a default have a lasting effect? The surveys conducted during the study about attitudes toward the change seemed promising. Students, even those who regularly eat meat, reported that they had higher meal satisfaction on days when plant-based options were the default.
This has a double-pronged effect in normalizing plant-based foods so that schools can more easily expand those options, leading to further environmental benefits.
“This study confirms what we’ve seen repeatedly—that Gen-Z students are not only open to plant-centered dining, but that they feel good about eating in places that center plant-based meals,” Better Food Foundation Executive Director Jennifer Channin said in a statement.
“These findings give us hope that the plant-centered food system our world needs is easier to achieve than we used to think,” Channin said.
The three schools involved in this leg of the study are part of a broader multi-university study that will examine how plant-based default options affect student behavior.
Universities must take the plant-based lead
A new article published in The Lancet Planetary Health journal points out that universities are most adept at leading the transition to plant-based foods, given they are research settings where younger demographics are already creating a demand for such foods.
“A typical university procures, directly or indirectly, several tons of animal products every month, and advertises these products to thousands of people every day,” the article notes. “This has consequences beyond immediate economic impacts and effects on consumer health.”
“By not changing their practices and policies, universities are sending a message to students, staff, and wider society that the issues associated with animal-based food are not important enough to warrant changes,” the article states. “Thereby, universities risk undermining a large body of scientific literature which suggests the contrary.”
And some schools are already implementing changes, both big and small. Earlier this year, on-campus cafés at two schools in California—Pomona College and University of San Diego—implemented oat milk as the default to help students choose more environmentally friendly options in their coffee.
And in addition to the three universities involved in Sodexo’s landmark study, other institutions have been taking the lead in the plant-based transition.
An ongoing partner of Sodexo Campus, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is working with schools to provide chefs with plant-based training to help them shift their menus, including the University of Michigan, which aims to ensure 55 percent of its residential dining menus have plant-based options by 2025