Got plants? Atlanta college campuses heed student call for healthier food choices

Freshman Will Theodore grabs sauteed spinach and kale from the Stem to Root food bar at the Dobbs Common Table dining hall in the new student center at Emory University. (ALYSSA POINTER / AJC)

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Freshman Will Theodore grabs sauteed spinach and kale from the Stem to Root food bar at the Dobbs Common Table dining hall in the new student center at Emory University. (ALYSSA POINTER / AJC)

I want to go back to college. Not for the exams, the rowdy parties or the loan debt. To exercise in a state-of-the-art recreational facility would be nice, but, honestly, this go-round I want to eat my way through the school — and not feel one iota bad about it.

The dreaded freshman 15 was a real thing with my college cohort in the early 1990s. Then, as now, we had to learn self-control in an all-you-can-eat cafeteria setting — especially at the dessert station, with that tempting soft-serve ice cream and sprinkles. But, unlike today, most of the other pickings weren’t quite conducive to healthy eating.

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There was so much fried food, enough to give us acne past our teens. Whole grains? White rice was the closest thing, and a far cry from the quinoa bowls of today. We didn’t even know how to say quinoa 30 years ago. Nothing was labeled vegetarian, vegan, kosher, gluten-free or nut-free. Halal? Hello? Who are you?

These days, you can walk around West Village, the multi-story dining facility at Georgia Tech, and find vegan meatloaf made with Impossible Foods’ plant-based beef alternative, a vegan “chicken” wrap, or vegetarian lasagna. You can head to Patton Dining Hall at Georgia State University and fill up on curried tofu, chickpea salad or customize a stir-fry plate from its plant-based station, City Harvest, which debuted in August. Over at Emory University, you can peruse the Stem to Root plant-based dining station, at the newly built student center, to find a plethora of clean eats, then wash it all down with fresh carrot-ginger juice.

“This is not something fringe anymore. It’s what kids are asking for,” said Rebecca Portman, a food and nutrition specialist based in Atlanta, who works for the Humane Society of the United States and is boots on the ground with institutions in the Southeast.

Driving back from a visit to an elementary school in Cobb County, Portman ticked off the many ways in which plant-based foods and beverages are taking center stage of late. Folks are guzzling nondairy milksKFC couldn't have asked for a better reception for its recently piloted Beyond Fried Chicken product in Atlanta. "Tofu and tempeh are now accredited commodity items for K-12 school districts," Portman added. "That's huge."

Portman was also a coordinator for a plant-based leadership summit held earlier this month in partnership with Emory Healthcare. The gathering brought together about 80 food service and nutrition professionals in the higher education and health care arenas across Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama to share ideas about putting more plants on plates at universities, hospitals and other institutions.

“People are interested, for their health, the environment, ethics,” Portman said of the increased enthusiasm for plant-based foods. “It’s an important topic of conversation.”

Food offerings at Emory Student Center are the result of such conversations. The Stem to Root station greets guests at the entrance, but every station in this mini food hall holds plant-based options, noted Jessica Perry, a dietitian with Bon Appetit Management Co., food service provider on Emory’s campus. While Perry works closely with Emory’s campus dining director, Culinary Institute of America graduate Chad Sunstein, students have a sizable input in food offerings.

Those offerings reflect students’ growing interest in reducing protein consumption — particularly, animals — and increasing plants in their diets.

Emory taps into student feedback for its dining options via emails, surveys and monthly town halls with a student advisory committee. But, there was an instance where one student alone made a difference.

Isaac Goldman graduated from Emory in May with a degree in interdisciplinary studies and a concentration in food sustainability. He’s largely responsible for the Beyond Meat products that currently sit in hot holding pans at the Stem to Root station. During his junior year, Goldman met with Perry and the Bon Appetit team to present a case for Beyond Meat products. By semester’s end, they were testing the Beyond burger in the dining hall, while Goldman was busy asking his peers about their diets.

Would you be interested in buying this product again? What do you normally eat when you come to the dining hall? Vegetarian or carnivore, why are you choosing the Beyond burger?

“If taste is the reason they were doing it, it’s important to do the Beyond burger, and not a veggie or bean burger,” Goldman said.

He now works for Eclipse Foods, a startup based in Berkeley, California, that makes plant-based dairy products. The company’s first product, a plant-based ice cream, will launch soon. Next up for Eclipse, Goldman said, is a liquid base for plant-based ice cream that works well in soft-serve machines. As part of the business development team, Goldman has his eyes set on those same soft-serve machines in college campus cafeterias that tempted me 30 years ago.

Maybe the freshman 15 is still a thing, but now temptation involves more plants and a dose of conscience. I’ll take a double serving of both. In a cake cone, if possible.

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