The 5th Annual Menus of Change Leadership Summit opened on June 20 by reflecting back on all that the initiative has accomplished to date. This includes calling on the culinary profession and foodservice industry to use menu and recipe design as a main lever for delivering healthier, more sustainable, and delicious food and to reconsider the role of protein in favor of adopting plant-forward culinary strategies. The Culinary Institute of America and Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health are partners in Menus of Change, which includes the annual conference that concluded last week at the CIA’s New York campus.

Throughout its first five years, the Menus of Change initiative has engaged thousands of leaders in the foodservice industry around this vision. Involvement in Menus of Change has led to substantial changes in what these foodservice operators choose to buy and serve to diners:

  • Of foodservice operators who attended a Menus of Change summit, more than 80 percent introduced new recipes or revised existing ones as a result of participating
  • Over half of these same attendees have changed their sourcing practices
  • From corporate dining to multi-unit restaurant groups, operators across the country are adopting the Menus of Change platform and principles as part of their strategic planning process
  • Nearly 50 college and university foodservice operations—members of the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative—are conducting and sharing research and education in support of culinary-centric, evidence-based food systems innovation within and beyond universities

But neither the leaders of Menus of Change nor the audience members are resting on their laurels. For the rest of the conference, the 400 professional attendees—made up of executives, experts, investors, and innovators in food, foodservice, health and nutrition, and sustainability—got down to the business of addressing all that is still to be done. Key areas of discussion this year included food transparency; increasing the use and acceptance of plant-based proteins; and how culinary professionals can help shift consumer choices, attitudes, and behaviors towards more plant-forward options.

The initiative’s two advisory councils—comprised of leading scientists, analysts, and foodservice business leaders from across the country—provided executive briefings on the latest scientific findings and business developments for the 2017 Menus of Change Annual Report, which was released on June 20. The report also features case studies and trend analysis, with highlights including: an investor spotlight on Food System 6, a marketing spotlight on Green Monday, an emerging chain spotlight on Modern Market, and a public-private partnership spotlight on Aramark and American Heart Association. Most importantly, the report dashboard rates the foodservice industry’s progress in addressing public health and environmental imperatives year over year.

“The diets of Americans have steadily improved over the last decade, and the near elimination of trans fat and a substantial decline in sugary beverages are especially remarkable,” says Walter Willett, MD, DrPH, chair of the Menus of Change Scientific and Technical Advisory Council and professor and former chairman in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard Chan School. “As we must deal with a sick planet while also improving human health, a major goal for the foodservice industry should be to move away from red meat on menus and to create additional inspiring and delicious plant-forward meals.”

Highlights of the conference included a spotlight on the recently released CIA-EAT Plant-Forward Global 50 list that reflects the critical role culinary insight plays in combating the issues facing the global food system, while respecting consumer taste and business profitability. Based in Norway, the EAT Foundation works globally to link food, health, and sustainable development across science, business, and policy with the goal of expanding knowledge, spurring innovation, and facilitating policy development related to those areas. The list includes 50 chefs from Paris to Peru, Mumbai to Madrid, and more than a dozen from the USA. Two of them, John Fraser and Dan Kluger, were presenters at the conference. Fraser spoke about flavor and menu strategies to help make healthy, sustainable food craveable and Kluger demonstrated some of his signature recipes, including wood-grilled asparagus with yogurt and chili oil.

“We are enthusiastic to be collaborating with the EAT Foundation to bring greater visibility to this must-know group of 50 chefs from around the world who are demonstrating just how delicious vegetables and other plant-forward flavors can be,” says Greg Drescher, CIA vice president of strategic initiatives and industry leadership. “It’s one thing to understand the road map for change; it’s another to be able to see, smell, and taste live business models moving these new directions forward.”

The “Make It Work” sessions are always an integral part of the conference. In these, conference attendees present their own concepts or challenges and get advice from a panel of experts on how best to address them. The pitches center around new business strategies and menu concepts that seek to follow the Menus of Change principles in ways that will both please their clientele and improve the bottom line.

“Each year, the leadership summit provides our industry with a host of new menu and recipe strategies both through innovation exchanges among attendees during the ‘Make It Work’ sessions and those brought forward by invited conference presenters,” says Arlin Wasserman, chair of the Menus of Change Sustainable Business Leadership Council and the founder and partner of Changing Tastes. “This year, we learned what kinds of approaches in the foodservice industry are more effective in helping to change how Americans eat, thanks in part to groundbreaking research from the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.”

The study found that strategies which both encourage the dining public to try something new and help educate them are most effective, whether through menus featuring more plant-forward offerings or campaigns like Meatless Monday that marry public education with small changes.

In addition to the professional attendees, CIA students observed general sessions as part of their course work, and hundreds of people around the world joined a live webcast, now archived on the conference website. Some sessions available for viewing:

  • The review of the 2017 Menus of Change Annual Report by Arlin Wasserman and Walter Willett
  • A panel of journalists, including Corby Kummer (The Atlantic), Ellen Morrissey (Martha Stewart Living), and Carolyn O’Neil, MS, RD (Atlanta Journal-Constitution) discussing what plant-forward themes resonate most with their readers and how the trend is shaping the future of American foodservice
  • Russell Walker, PhD (Northwestern University), Dan Coudreau ’95 (McDonald’s), and Elizabeth Meltz (Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group) on how food transparency affects business and what information, and how much, to share with customers

Menus of Change advisory council members will meet throughout the coming year to discuss continued progress and begin to plan the program for the next Menus of Change, to be held June 19–21.

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