At Students’ Behest, Roseville Schools Looking for Plant-Based Protein Options

At Students’ Behest, Roseville Schools Looking for Plant-Based Protein Options

Hungry students returning to class this fall in the Roseville Area School District will be seeing more plant-based protein food options to choose from, the district says.

Should the offerings pass muster with students, more dishes involving tempeh, tofu and legumes will become regular parts of the menu.

Such a push is coming from the mouths of students, says Angela Richey, nutrition services supervisor for the district. Surveys of district high schoolers show the older students would like offerings beyond meat and dairy as their protein menu options.

“That’s where the majority of the ask has been for the vegetarian options,” says Richey. “I think they’re a little bit more environmentally aware, eco-conscious.”

Per a district release, plant-based meals require fewer resources than animal products. For example, it takes 326 gallons of water to produce a beef burger patty, while it takes just 46 gallons of water to produce a similar serving size of garbanzo beans.

Richey says students aren’t suggesting specific menu items they’d like to see, but are seeking to see fewer meat and dairy options, all with the environment in mind.

U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines determine vegetarian food options for public schools, Richey says, and day to day, the majority of non-meat menu items contain cheese. The USDA recently approved tempeh, which is made of cooked and fermented soy beans, adding to the already OK non-dairy options of nuts, nut butter, legumes and tofu.

Tofu, even just a few years ago, Richey says, was a tough sell. “I think two years ago we tried tofu for the first time — limited success,” she says.

Richey remembers joining second graders for lunch and trying to sell a girl on the tofu teriyaki over a chicken option prepared the same way. She says the grade-schooler opted for the chicken, only because she’d had tofu for dinner the night before.

“So I know that they’re familiar with it,” Richey says. “It just didn’t gain enough traction to keep it on the menu.”

Kid-tested, student approved

New offerings, plant-based proteins or not, gain traction when kids choose them.

“Primarily, students are voting through their lunch choices,” Richey says, adding that lunchroom staffers are great about following up with youth to get their opinions on food. “The kids are honest, sometimes brutally so.”

Richey says she and colleagues pinpoint which ideas to offer up for the school year with taste-testing during the summer. 

Students who attend the Quantum Summer Program at Roseville Area High School taste test a number of nutrition services offerings, filling out surveys to let staffers know what they like and what they don’t.

The 40-or-so high school-aged kids “have continuously given us really detailed, great feedback,” says Richey.

One surprise this summer was the success of a chana masala recipe over chicken masala; the former is an Indian chickpea dish. “I was shocked how highly they rated it,” Richey says.

Many of the plant-based protein options are a blank pallet, Richey says, and use sauces, as in the masala, for “flavor and some punch.”

Other floated dishes include a Buffalo tempeh wrap, and using a beef-like plant-based crumble to put with sauce for nachos or tacos.

When it comes to the cost of plant-based proteins, Richey says “at this point, we’re trying to make it a wash” compared to animal-based foods.

For instance, the veggie burgers the district uses cost the same as a beef patties. Plant-based options can often come from smaller vendors, creating issues of scale when it comes to pricing, Richey says. Some options can end up being slightly more expensive.

Since “the vast majority of our students are still heavily meat eaters, we’re not going through large quantities” of those spendier plant-based options, so it balances out, Richey says.

Top to bottom

Should a plant-based protein menu item work at the secondary school, Richey says it will work its way into the middle and elementary schools.

“Our high school is kind of our guinea pig, but because they’re asking [for plant-based options] we want to make sure we’re meeting their needs first and foremost,” she says.

Richey says such efforts are happening in other school districts, parallel to what she calls an “international culinary trend.”

She also points to what’s happening at popular restaurants. For instance, Chipotle, the ubiquitous burrito chain, began offering a tofu protein option a couple years ago and it stuck.

Such trends reflect what kids will expect from their schools, Richey says.

“We’re seeing this in mainstream restaurants and we need to be on top of our game in schools, too, because we’re delivering restaurant-quality food to our students.”

–This article was written by Mike Munzenrider for the Lillie Roseville-Little Canada Review, and published on September 3, 2019. The newspaper ceased publication in October 2019. We appreciate the coverage they provided to our community.