How Switching to Sustainable Dining Really Looks: The advent of sustainable dining is a story of many food laboratories
By MARISSA GARCIA
ANNENBERG HALL, THE TABLES
Annenberg Hall on a weekday morning is nothing short of bustling, hands juggling plates stacked with pancakes and bacon along with bowls abound with oatmeal. It’s Annenberg’s only meal period free from dining restrictions, and the inevitable struggle of finding a seat shows for it. Combing through the long tables for an open seat can be fruitless as many groups of friends chat before their 10:30am classes. Despite breakfast being an open meal for all, the scarce plant-based options used to curtail vegans from this meal fest, restrictive on the basis of dietary preferences. Finally, come the 2017-2018 academic year, the Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) began to alleviate this limitation. A student who was a member of Vegitas—an organization of Harvard students passionate about animal rights from economic, moral, and environmental perspectives—was on the cusp of tears when Annenberg debuted plant-based breakfast options. Not only could she now butter her bagel, but she could also stack her plate with vegan breakfast delights galore—plate bountiful with pastries, muffins, and tofu scramble.
These vegan breakfast provisions could be washed down with a glass of oat milk, thanks to an oat milk machine installed as of Fall 2019. Oat milk now joins the ranks of Annenberg’s other plant-based alternatives of soy and almond milk, which both have been subjects of critique for their environmental impacts. Soybean production is heavily associated with deforestation, and almond milk—compounded with being a top allergen—depletes water resources. The water uptake in agricultural production is exorbitant, with a single almond demanding over a gallon of water for growth. In the orchards of California, almonds are cultivated by farmers who must grapple with producing enough of a water-hungry crop to satiate market demand while also facing a regional drought. According to research at the University of Oxford, oat milk strikes a balance, with low carbon emissions, land usage, and water usage alike.
Though the inclusion of oat milk in Annenberg has been an impressive step forward, the upperclassmen House dining halls cannot expect to see the emergence of oat milk machines. Installing a new plant-based milk machine in each of the House’s dining hall becomes a challenge of limited real estate. In order to add in such a machine, another will have to relent its space, a stride HUDS may not be willing to take unless it is substantiated by student preference first and foremost. Instead of serving as the food police—dictating whether or not to drink cow’s milk—HUDS strives to respond predominantly toward student demands. HUDS gets a pulse on student perspectives through the Student Satisfaction Survey. And so, as the student responses increasingly prioritize the environment in food selection, HUDS will continue to adapt accordingly.
DINING HALLS, THE GRILLE
Beginning in Fall 2017, the Grille menu saw the introduction of the Beef and Mushroom Burger. This burger aimed to appease both meat-eaters and sustainability demands alike; the beef in the patty was reduced by 30% and replaced with diced, roasted mushrooms. Introducing mushrooms in a 1:3 ratio also lessened saturated fat levels by 30%, making them more attractive to a health-conscious consumer. The mushroom’s umami flavor affords the burger a deep taste; so long as the ratio of mushrooms does not exceed 30%, consumers will not detect textures uncharacteristic of beef. HUDS also applies this strategy of mushroom supplementation to its recipes for beef sauces and chili.
Come Fall 2018, the Beef and Mushroom Burger was displaced by the Beyond Burger. Its popularity in the food industry—now staples at Veggie Grill, Del Taco, and Dunkin’—extends to the Harvard campus. As indicated by the number of orders placed on the Mange grille app, the demand for the Beyond Burger is rising in equal measure to the fall in demand for beef. Nevertheless, the Beyond Burger has received much industrial criticism for being highly processed since it contains twenty-two ingredients, far from the definition of a whole food. So, although it exists as an option on the menu, often attracting meat-eaters to rounding out their dietary lifestyle with more sustainable options, it does not stand as the only vegan option on the menu. Akeisha Hayde, the Executive Chef for Residential Dining at HUDS, stands behind the sentiment that food should be what it is—and that means having a menu that isn’t fully reliant upon meat “replacements.” The student surveys also reflect this preference, advocating for more roasted and steamed vegetables offered within the dining. Simplicity reigns: the consensus stands with whole food ingredients.
Within the commissary kitchen, new recipes are tasted and debated upon—which of these will make it onto the HUDS menu as an entree? In these deliberations, prices fall secondary. HUDS’ foremost priority in selecting a new recipe is quality, evaluating its taste and scalability. Would it be possible to cook these new dishes in small batches of twenty to fifty, and then scale that up to producing them in large volumes? The availability of the recipe’s ingredients with local vendors also prevails in importance; electing to purchase food that does not have to travel far is a priority in sustainable dining. 32% of the HUDS budget is allocated toward purchasing local goods.
MEAN GREENS CAFETERIA, NORTH TEXAS
Being faithful to local goods is nothing novel for the Mean Greens cafeteria at the University of North Texas, the nation’s first all-vegan dining hall. In a nearby freight trailer behind the scenes, a hydroponic garden prospers, growing up to eleven varieties of lettuce and herbs that are incorporated as organic ingredients in Mean Greens dishes. Producing up to 800 heads a week, this garden is a pillar to provisions served at Mean Greens, also reducing fossil fuel consumption and carbon emissions associated with extensive food shipment.
When Mean Greens opened in August 2011, it was met with hesitation, winning over only 175 swipes a day. As the year went on, however, Mean Greens could reliably expect 800 to 900 swipes a day—an indicator of the quality of their plant-based offerings. At the panini station, students can request house-made seitan, vegetables, or mushrooms. Frozen yogurt machines serve ice cream made from soy. Cuisine varies daily from homestyle, Asian, Indian, Italian, and Tex-Mex.
The pioneering force behind Mean Green’s success was the chef and manager Wanda White. Hailing from a history of pastry-making, she too had to face reconstructing her knowledge from culinary school: the greatest conundrum being cooking without eggs and dairy products. She not only learned the ropes of vegan cooking—she completely overhauled the very nature of vegan food in dining halls.
THE HARVARD KITCHENS, WITH HSUS
Wanda White now serves as the Executive Chef for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and has begun collaborating with HUDS sous-chef TJ Graceffa, teaching him the tenets of plant-based cooking. Similar to how White hailed from a culinary tradition reliant upon eggs and milk, Graceffa did not have previous experience in cooking plant-based food. Inexperience, however, was far from translating to inability. With diligence and practice, White rose as an eminent plant-based culinary figure, and now HSUS offers plant-based trainings to Harvard to give the dining services equal expertise.
In both January and June 2015, White held the first-ever dining hall plant-based culinary trainings in collaboration with Harvard. Following the release of Harvard’s Sustainable and Healthful Food Standards, they held another training in June 2018 as well as a leadership summit in October 2018. Efforts have only been heightening. Another training took place in January 2019 and two back-to-back in June 3-6, 2019.
These two-day trainings begin with a thirty-minute presentation addressing the why’s of plant-based eating, and then the chef assigns forty Harvard cooks and chefs to various cuisines of food to prepare, including street food, international food, dessert, Mediterranean, and salads. After tasting each other’s concoctions during lunch, they then proceed back into the kitchen to begin prepping breakfast for the next day—including quinoa porridge, cinnamon rolls, and overnight French Toast. They taste the breakfast on the second day and then discuss thoughts on the taste and ease of preparation. Many times the Harvard administration is invited to these taste tests. HSUS can teach anywhere from 60 to 80 recipes such as Carrot Osso Bucco and Vegetable Wellingtons, spin-offs of traditionally meat-centric pieces.
The pastry-chef expertise of White surely is especially pronounced in the training’s desserts. Egg whites are no longer necessary for a luxurious meringue—instead, chefs can use leftover liquid from chickpeas, serving as an excellent egg substitute due to its binding qualities the starch affords. Whip up this liquid instead of waste it, and chefs can produce a very fluffy cream perfect for piping onto a sweet potato pie.
Aquafaba is merely only one strategy HSUS teaches HUDS about sustainable repurposing of food “waste.” Discarded broccoli stems can be repurposed into slaws, and other parts of cut vegetables that would otherwise be discarded can instead flavor a vegetable stock.
Following their trainings with HSUS, HUDS has made many strides in its plant-based offerings in Fall 2019. They now serve stroganoff, an egg-free pasta using seitan and mushrooms, red wine, soy milk, and nutritional yeast—a popular seasoning in vegan cuisine. Other stations are made so that plant-forward undergraduates are able to enjoy the same dining experience as students who elect to eat meat—these stations feature burritos, Meditteranean platters, bao, and nachos. Options for vegetarians at Fly By have also expanded. In addition to a vegetarian soup and chili being offered, new staples include the Caprese Tomato Basil Wrap and the Penne Primavera Salad.
ANNENBERG HALL, IN THE HANDS OF THE STUDENTS
In the landscape of Harvard University Dining Services, a top-down approach is favored. Whatever sustainability dining initiatives are piloted—and successful—in Annenberg trickles downward to the House dining halls. Positive feedback in the Student Satisfaction Survey and the number of portions taken from the serving line help HUDS ascertain which entrees are a success with the undergraduates. So, in order to proliferate sustainable meals across all houses, collaboration is required. The menus change because undergraduate preference changes. The incorporation of HSUS’ inventive and flavorful recipes into the HUDS menu may just be the steps necessary to engage and excite those who are currently not plant-forward to experiment with new dietary lifestyles. The story of the advent of sustainable eating at Harvard is really one of stitched-together food laboratories—testing grounds for sustainable dining—spanning as far away as North Texas.
Marissa Garcia ‘21 (firstname.lastname@example.org) translates her passion for sustainability into covering the emergence of plant-based eating at Harvard for the Indy. She extends special thanks to Dorrie Nang of HSUS and the team at HUDS for being interviewed for this article, as well as Maria Katrien Heslin of HSUS for extensive help with resources.