What To Consider When Asking Institutions To Shift How They Serve Food
Food choices are extremely personal. They’re informed by our culture, upbringing, education, ethics, and more. For some, food serves as a time capsule keeping familial and cultural history alive, while for others it’s an outward expression of morals and values. Food choices can also be restricted by bodily responses, religious affiliation, and financial realities. And when we work to shift food norms, all of these considerations have to be taken into account to realize widespread change.
For animal advocates working to shift food norms, it can be tempting to ask for the elimination of meat and dairy from menus and diets, since we want to improve the lives of all living beings. But human behavior is complex, and people may respond negatively to a drastic change which they feel is forced upon them. And, with meat consumption still on the rise in the US, psychological research shows that appeals to reduce meat consumption have stronger and longer lasting impacts on eating behaviors than appeals to eliminate meat consumption completely. Serving plant-based meals by default works to accomplish both: preserving freedom of choice, while nudging consumers towards sparing the lives of many animals and lessening food’s overall impact on the environment.
Fostering Inclusivity In Foodservice
Greener by Default (GBD) consults with institutions, including universities, conferences, hospitals, and corporate cafeterias, to serve plant-based meals by default. The default is the option an individual ends up with when they don’t make an active choice. For example, every iPhone user is familiar with the brand’s default ringtone, which most of us don’t bother to change. People tend to stick with defaults partly because it’s one less decision to make, and partly because defaults are often seen as the more socially acceptable option. Because of this tendency, defaults and other behavioral nudges can be used to encourage particular food choices; research shows that implementing plant-based defaults can decrease meat consumption by 53% to 87%, depending on the environment.
With help from GBD, LinkedIn San Francisco was able to switch their menus to serve 65% veg options in the cafeteria and make oat milk the default choice for milk-based drinks in their coffee bar. GBD was also instrumental in helping NYC Health and Hospitals transition their patient meals to serve plant-based meals by default, resulting in over half of eligible patients now choosing plant-based meals. This approach leads to more plant-based options being selected, thus saving many animal lives, while also shifting food paradigms by normalizing plant-based eating. Best of all, because freedom of choice is preserved and there are still meat options available for those who want or feel they need meat at every meal, this approach does not encounter the same type of pushback as fully meatless menus.
While an institution has the power to make change at a larger scale, and thus have a larger impact than any one of us individually, it’s important to remember that institutions are made up of individuals. Institutional food changes that ignore the diverse needs and desires of those they impact may fall flat, be poorly received, or fail to realize their intended impacts. Below, we explore some considerations to keep in mind when asking institutions to shift how they serve food.
Addressing Allergies & Food Sensitivities
Serving more diverse plant-based dishes with the choice to opt into meat and dairy is inclusive of various allergies and food sensitivities, such as lactose intolerance and seafood allergies. In the same vein, certain approaches to building a plant-based menu can be restrictive to others. According to the USFDA, there are eight foods that make up 90% of all food allergic reactions in the U.S. – of those, four are animal foods, specifically milk, eggs, fish, and shellfish. The remaining four are ingredients that frequently show up in plant-forward cooking: tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans.
When asking institutions to increase plant-based options, it’s important to make sure the transition doesn’t rely too heavily on just one of those allergens – like making all of the plant-based dishes pasta and bread-based, switching over all sauces to a nut-base, or only offering tofu and soy-based burgers as protein sources. Diversifying ingredients and sources of plant-based items is important in ensuring there are options everyone can eat. With thoughtful choices and transparent labeling, institutions can serve a majority plant-based menu that offers options everyone can enjoy.
Highlighting & Supporting Culture
A plant-based default menu also allows institutions to offer foods that are culturally relevant or meet religious dietary restrictions for their diners. Plant-based options are inclusive of those who avoid various animal products for religious purposes, such as Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Rastafarians, Seventh Day Adventists, and more who may be vegetarian, and Jews and Muslims who don’t eat pork. Generational cultural differences are also addressed by plant-based defaults, as more people in younger generations prioritize meat and dairy reduction than their older counterparts; 79% of Gen Zers want to eat less meat, and over half of Millennials identify as flexitarians. With Gen Z now making up 40% of all consumers in the U.S., this is an important subset of the population for institutions to cater to.
Plant-based defaults also give institutions a chance to highlight popular cuisines from around the world that are naturally plant-forward, such as Indian, Thai, and Mediterranean. Foodservice providers can pull from this range of delicious flavors to present options that are culturally relevant to the diverse array of people they serve. For example, NYC Health and Hospitals has done a fantastic job offering plant-based meals from the cultures represented in the demographics of the city population: Spanish Vegetable Paella with Yellow Rice, Red Curry Vegetables with Roasted Tofu, Southern Black-Eyed Pea Casserole, Pad Thai Noodle Bowl, which is likely contributing to the program’s 95% satisfaction rate among patients.
Considering The Cost
While certain plant-based foods are cheaper than meat, some are more expensive, and for institutions with different financial situations, some food options simply may not be accessible or affordable. When this is the case, it is helpful to point to the lower cost of whole plant-based foods, such as canned beans, tofu, and rice, compared to options like plant-based meat alternatives. Greener by Default has found that shifting to plant-based defaults is typically cost-neutral for institutional food providers, and in some cases can end up helping institutions save money by reducing food costs.
Another important cost consideration for institutions working to serve more plant-based options is labor. While ingredients may prove affordable, making them into balanced meals may be more labor-intensive. There are a few solutions to this challenge, such as purchasing pre-chopped vegetables, taking advantage of machines that can prepare or chop ingredients on an industrial scale, or choosing recipes that require less labor, but it’s important to acknowledge this challenge when discussing potential barriers with foodservice staff and come to the table with solutions.
Plant-based defaults also offer the opportunity to make the sustainable option affordable for all, such as in the case of milk options in coffee bars and cafes. Plant-based milks tend to be more expensive than cow’s milk, and the average coffee shop ends up passing that cost on to the consumer by adding a surcharge to the drink price when a customer orders a plant-based option. Flipping the norm and making oat milk the default (as Blue Bottle and others have successfully achieved) while making drink prices the same across the board removes part of the financial barrier to sustainability and is inclusive of the millions of people unable to digest lactose, while still offering cow’s milk to those who request it.
Further Tips in Advocating for Plant-Forward Defaults
- Find an internal champion: Institutions are much more open to listening to their own members, rather than someone from an outside non-profit. Whether you are part of the organization in question or an external advocate, try to figure out who would be the best decision maker to speak to, and then share information about plant-based defaults or schedule a joint call with Greener by Default.
- Refer to research: The body of peer-reviewed research focused on using defaults to encourage dietary shifts is growing. Greener by Default’s website offers summaries of relevant research as a place to start familiarizing yourself with the literature, so your recommendations and advocacy are grounded in fact and strengthened by external analyses. Faunalytics offers further reading on defaults and nudging in the Research Library.
- Shape your messaging: Frame your initial outreach based on the target institution’s priorities, whether that’s health & wellness, sustainability, or inclusivity.
- Engage younger generations: Gen Z and Millennials are more open to plant-forward eating than previous generations. Collaborate with members of these groups within the organization you’re trying to work with to build a case for plant-based defaults. Institutions can set themselves apart and lead the pack by shifting menus to stay relevant to this key demographic.
- Utilize dynamic norm messaging: Social norms are rules of behavior within groups that most people prefer to follow. Static norms are those that are already in place, whereas dynamic norms show how social norms are changing over time. For instance, the static norm is, “X% of people are vegetarian or vegan,” while the dynamic norm is, “X% of Americans report reducing their meat consumption over the past year.” Research shows that dynamic norms are more likely to inspire behavior change than static norms because dynamic norms emphasize that change is possible, both for individuals and for society. Listen to an interview with a leading researcher in this field to learn more and apply these concepts to your advocacy approach and outreach.
- Reach out to Greener by Default: Our team collaborates with institutions to conduct menu analyses, implement pilot programs, and calculate environmental impacts of the resulting interventions. We would be thrilled to be introduced to any institutions you have successfully connected with to ensure your advocacy efforts are advanced through effective implementation of plant-forward defaults!