Tofu béchamel, plant-based sushi and wagyu "beef" made from peas, soy and fava beans. These and dozens of other plant-based dishes are poised to become increasingly common on the menus of public institutions as chefs try to reduce their kitchens' environmental and health impacts while whetting people's appetite for plant-based meals.

Tips and tricks to help chefs meet those goals were on full display this week as roughly 150 chefs and food industry professionals gathered at Simon Fraser University (SFU) to share advice on everything from convincing people to choose plant-based dishes to finding suitable ingredients.

Alongside a suite of speakers, a half-dozen plant-based food companies had set up shop in the space, offering samples of oat milk eggnog, waffles and plant-based "salmon" in the hopes of becoming standard cafeteria fare. Representatives from one company were even handing out mini plates of a remarkably chicken-like shawarma made from pea protein.

"Public sector institutions across the board have a great lead" when it comes to supporting the growth of plant-based diets, explained SFU’s director of ancillary services Sid Mehta. His department organized the conference alongside Humane Society International Canada's Forward Food program.

Institutions like SFU, which serves about 18,000 meals daily, are large enough to push suppliers to purchase more plant-based and local foods by guaranteeing them enough sales to remain in business. Universities have the added advantage — and responsibility — of being able to draw on the academic expertise fostered within their walls. If they don't engage students and help them live the values the schools preach, then "how the hell are we going to be credible?" he said.

The schools can also take risks on new menu items, products or serving techniques that for-profit companies would find too risky, Mehta said. For instance, SFU has included plant-based dishes using ingredients like millet and seitan as a primary part of all its menus, where previously vegetarian meals were relegated to a different section of the cafeteria.

For SFU, moving to a more plant-based and local menu has been a years-long "iterative" process completed alongside a handful of other universities and institutions in B.C., and the provincial government. That collaboration helped the group identify which local suppliers and ingredients were available, training chefs to use them and making it easier to then work with the suppliers to source the foods.

A key issue for suppliers is volume, explained Dana Hospitality district manager Dave Davis, who was at the Thursday event. Suppliers need to move a certain volume of a product like tempeh to keep it in stock. Calls from universities and other institutions can generate large enough demand to keep those kinds of products in stock.

Those types of widespread shifts in ingredient availability and consumer demand, combined with increasing chefs' knowledge on how to use them, are key to fuelling the kinds of longer-term reductions in meat consumption scientists say are essential to meeting our climate and biodiversity goals, explained Humane Society International Canada’s senior campaign manager Riana Topan.

Tofu béchamel, plant-based sushi and wagyu "beef" made from peas, soy and fava beans. These and dozens of other plant-based dishes are poised to become increasingly common on the menus of public institutions.

Eating more plants is also important for health, with the most recent Canada Food Guide recommending Canadians get the majority of their diet from vegetables, grains and plant-based proteins, she noted.

The conference comes amidst concern that interest in plant-based foods and alternative meat has waned after years of skyrocketing growth. Since 2019, one of the industry's most prominent companies — Beyond Meat — has seen its market share fall sharply, and other high-profile companies like the B.C.-based Very Good Butchers have closed up shop.

Still, Mehta said he isn't bothered by the longevity questions swirling around the buzzier, high-tech end of the plant-based eating world. Basic ingredients like lentils, tofu, tempeh, grains and vegetables have been around for thousands of years; along with newer, moderately processed ingredients like some plant-based meat alternatives, these ingredients will be central to increasing the proportion of plants in people's diets.

High-tech foods have a place, he said, but they alone won't drive the transition. A broader approach is needed to create "a pathway for this ecosystem to support local food systems, build a resilient food system, and help shift our diets in line with Canada Food Guide into being more plant-forward."

Updates and corrections

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November 9, 2023, 02:30 pm

Editor's note: This story was updated on November 9, 2023 to clarify the name of the Forward Food program and the Canada Food Guide's dietary recommendations.

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How about schools and institutions focus on Local and Regenerative if they really want to make a difference with climate. Everyone knows plants are important but SO ARE ANIMAL PROTEINS. Humans are omnivores. How about cafeterias make these fancy dishes with local/regenerative beef instead of the basic burgers fare? There are many cultural dishes that are vegetarian, these are great options. Veganism is an extreme diet that doesn't need to be catered to.

The myth that locally produced food is better for the climate has long been debunked. What you eat is much more important than where it comes from.

Grass-fed cattle produce even more methane than grain-fed cattle. And "grazing livestock – even in a best-case scenario – are net contributors to the climate problem, as are all livestock. Good grazing management cannot offset its own emissions, let alone those arising from other systems of animal production."

Protein from animal sources is not needed for good health. The fact that humans are biologically omnivores means that we can eat meat, not that we have to, or ought to.

I have gone (mostly vegan) while it is easy to get enough protein from an all plant diet, vitamin B12 is a different matter. I have to take a supplement for that. I don't know if that supplement is vegan or animal based.

Angus does it ever occur to you that most people who eat animal products aren't villains? In fact they are the vast majority of people on this planet. Do you really think it's helpful to alienate this many people when we should be directing our energies to fighting the common enemy, the fossil fuel industry. Please stop. If you want to eat vegan fine, but please stop pushing questionable science to indoctrinate people into your religion.