Evolving Vegan Options at Michigan State

Michigan State is working to understand the perspective of vegan diners and enhance options on campus.

Members of today’s generation of college students have a lot on their plates. Balancing school work, extracurricular activities, a social life, and other demands upon their time can daunting. But choosing meals shouldn’t have to be.

At Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing, MI, we strive to ensure that the campus community has a wide variety of selections, including diners with special dietary needs.

Peta2, the youth division of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), regularly surveys students as part of a Vegan Report Card created for U.S. colleges. Results from 2017 showed that the number of vegan students more than doubled in 10 years. As veganism grows in popularity, examining recipes and transforming menus to include more vegan options has become a much higher priority for our team.

Early in 2018, Brenda Nelson, complex dining service manager for East Neighborhood, and Jason Strotheide, executive chef overseeing Brody Square and Heritage Commons at Landon, transitioned to eating only vegan food items to understand the perspective of campus diners who live a vegan lifestyle. The commitment involved researching the diet beyond what they know from years of working in food service and exploring recipe and ingredient options.

“This was about truly seeking to experience what they do and look for opportunities to improve in our operations,” says Brenda. “I knew I would never get it unless I actually committed to it.”

What they encountered was a challenging yet rewarding stage of their careers that inspired a larger portion of the culinary team to participate and navigate different allergens and restrictions, making a concerted effort to see things from a unique perspective.

Sifting Through the Details

Throughout the month, Nelson and Strotheide took a new approach to their daily meals. Both meat lovers and foodies, taking a close look at everything from ingredient labels to MSU’s catalogue of recipes was essential to the transition.

“I really had to go through the labels, unless it was a vegan-friendly store,” Nelson says. “It gets down to the simplest items like the sugar they use. White sugar gets its color from a refining process that often involves the use of bone char, so it’s not vegan.”

Nelson found a nearby market in Frandor Shopping Center with a variety of labeled vegan options, including desserts; however, it was evident that grocery shopping, dining in, and dining out all needed to change.

For Strotheide, it was the same experience; coming across obscure items that they suddenly had to avoid, like honey, which most vegans don’t consume, and gelatin.

“I was driving down the road with my wife and she said ‘Do you want a mint?’” he recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t know; read the ingredients to me.’ They were Altoids, which contain gelatin. The main ingredients make it easy to separate vegan from non-vegan, but you really have to dive deep if it’s not something you’re accustomed to.”

Working in food service had its advantages as the pair navigated through restaurant menus and recipes; however, certain dining facilities were not used to being approached with the question, “Do you have any vegan options?”

“I happened to be in Grand Rapids and went to a Cracker Barrel; it’s not my go-to place, but the group I was with made the restaurant choice,” Nelson remarks. “The wait staff went back and talked with the manager who said ‘Nothing here is vegan.’ Looking at the menu, I asked about the baked potato and broccoli; since they didn’t use butter during preparation, I was able to add a simple dressing and create my lunch.”

According to Strotheide, it’s more prevalent for eastern-style restaurants like those serving Chinese, Indian, or Asian cuisine to have a wide variety of vegan selections. “It’s more established in their diet,” he shares. “In America and most of the west, on the other hand, it’s very common to have an animal protein in every meal.”

Exploring New Dishes

MSU is home to nine residential dining halls, each with a unique set of branded venues. With halls like Brody Square, which features 10 distinctive platforms, executive chefs and guests have more flexibility when it comes to vegan offerings.

In smaller facilities on campus, it’s more of a challenge to consistently incorporate daily vegan selections without becoming repetitive. “We have to be very intentional about what we put on the menu in those halls to ensure we’re creating vegan opportunities,” Strotheide says.

While experiencing a vegan lifestyle, he created several new recipes that are now in the menu rotation on campus. One came to fruition because Strotheide’s daughter had a friend stay the night and they wanted pancakes for breakfast. Because what they had on hand was a buttermilk variety, he felt like the odd man out.

“I started pulling things out of cabinets and was determined to figure something out,” he says. “What I came up with is a banana oatmeal pancake, and it was delicious.”

MSU previously had a vegan pancake in the system; however, the recipe included pecans. In an effort to be increasingly nut friendly for those with an allergy, the new technique allows for a wider group to enjoy the dish.

The pancake received a positive response from students. Strotheide also introduced a Gardein Chicken Shawarma with Basmati Rice, Naan Bread, and Samosas, as well as a Smoked Barbecue Tofu Sandwich.

After meeting with Junior Samyuktha Iyer, a member of the MSU Veg Club, additional dishes were crafted for a special platform takeover event at Brody Square. Among other items, the menu featured Crunchy Cauliflower Nuggets, Celery Root Fettuccine with Walnut Bolognese, and Chocolate Cake with Raspberry Coulis from MSU bakers.

The event was well-received, with one student sharing on social media, “Eat at State really outdid themselves! Best meal Brody has ever had!!”

When thinking about this new partnership and Iyer’s desire to raise awareness on campus, Strotheide acknowledged that with so much culinary talent, MSU has the ability to create an entire catalog of vegan options.

“If we can get the chefs across campus saying we need to be more thoughtful about our vegan population, then maybe it spreads further to our front-line team members,” he shares. “Some students are maybe a little reluctant to ask for specific things because they feel like they’re going to get some pushback, and that’s a training issue on our part. My crew knew what I was up to, and it softens them up a little bit if we’re more active about it as opposed to simply talking about it.”

Inspiring the Team

After Nelson and Strotheide seized this opportunity, Corporate Chef Kurt Kwiatkowski was intrigued. Fifteen other members of the culinary team, including himself, volunteered to randomly select one of the eight major allergens identified on campus menus, as well as a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle and dietary restrictions of alcohol and pork.

Anna Foster, dining services manager for South Pointe at Case, transitioned to vegan for a month. “The most eye-opening part of the experience for me was the amount of time it took on certain days to make a complete plate,” she shares. “On some occasions, it was easy and I could find everything in one area, but on others I had to get creative and select items from multiple venues to build a mouthwatering dish.”

The group debriefed after facing the reality of living with an allergen or choosing a dietary preference, and it resulted in constructive conversation about the issues that are out there and ideas for how to address them.

“The feedback was very positive and everyone was on board to go through the process again this fall,” Kwiatkowski says.

Building on Progress

Every semester, an increasing number of vegan students reach out to MSU culinary staff, citing minimal variation in the menu rotation to meet their needs. Moving forward, CS is seeking other opportunities to educate team members and the campus community, gaining a new perspective on the feedback shared regularly by diners.

Venue takeovers focused on crafting a menu around specific dietary needs or allergens are being planned to expand on the concept that started in collaboration with the MSU Veg Club. Additionally, Kwiatkowski and MSU executive chefs are sifting through recipes to see where small changes can make a large impact; for example, in close to a dozen recipes, butter was replaced with a canola oil blend to generate new options.

“I think this created a lifelong change for me, and I’ll be much more cognizant of it,” Strotheide says. “We need to step out in front of this and create recipes that you can see someone put intent into; dishes that are flavorful and vibrant.”

Nelson added that the experience opened her eyes to what diners encounter and how we can shift our mentality. “I don’t want it be a second thought; I want it to be easy,” she explains. “This is a beautiful dish, it’s tasty, it can be eaten by everyone and it happens to be vegan. Non-vegans should want to eat it too; it should be that good.”