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Western University's new cafeteria food is probably not what you ate in school

Culinary staff at Western University are taking a two-day course about cooking plant-based dishes to meet the changing tastes of students.

The school wants to provide more options for students who increasingly want meat-free meals

Western University's new cafeteria food is probably not what you ate in school 0:47

Cafeteria food, it seems, ain't what it used to be. 

Western University feeds some 25,000 students a day and these days, as they shuffle through campus cafeteria lines, they're unlikely to line their trays with salt-laden fries, greasy pepperoni pizza or fried chicken plastered with sauce. 

Instead, they want something healthier, something they can customize—something without meat. 

I think it's gone from roast beef to crab cakes that are made by vegetables.- Frank Miller, Western's director of hospitality services

"I think it's gone from roast beef to crab cakes that are made by vegetables," said Frank Miller, Western's director of hospitality services, who has seen student tastes change dramatically over the course of his 40-year career. 

When Miller started his career, students took what they were served. Today, they want their food made to order and they want to know what's in it. 

'They'll Google it right away'

Frank Miller is the director of hospitality services at Western University. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

"They want transparency," he said. "They'll Google it right away, so we have to be careful."

Miller estimates up to 13 per cent of all Western University students are vegans or vegetarians, with many more who consider themselves flexitarians: students who eat mainly vegetables but still enjoy eating meat from time to time. 

In response, Western's cafeterias are changing the way they cook, serve and think about food. While students are home for the February reading week, the people who serve their food are busy trying new recipes, learning new techniques and honing their craft to make sure their menus meet students' changing tastes. 

Western even enlisted Forward Food, a non-profit food service consultant that teaches chefs, corporations and even university cafeterias how to use plant-based foods to create tasty meals for people who want more meatless options. 

Big demand for plant-based protein

Part of Food Forward's campaign is to help teach people that plant-based food can taste just as good, if not, better than meat. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

"This program is all about getting more plant-based foods in kitchens, on menus, because of the plethora of benefits for it environmentally, healthwise, as well as there's a huge demand for it," said Julie MacInnes, Food Forward's nutrition specialist. 

The standard is changing too. The federal government's revamped food guide caused a stir within Canada's food industry when it was unveiled in January. The newly revamped guide does away with food groups and instead puts an emphasis on fruit, vegetables, grains and "protein" rather than "meat." 

"This training is really perfect timing for that," she said, noting about half of Canadians have expressed a desire to reduce the amount of meat they have in their diet. 

"That's the target area," she said. "We want to make food that the vegans and vegetarians think taste good, but we also want to target all the other students who are not necessarily vegan or vegetarian, but they want more of this food." 

'We're not negating meats'

Julie MacInnes is a food and nutrition specialist with the non-profit, Food Forward. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

The results speak for themselves, according to Miller, who had his staff taste the food they created.

"If you taste the crabless crab cakes you're going to like them," he said. "I didn't know the difference." 

Miller said by next fall, Western University hopes to offer its students menus where 55 per cent of the options are based on non-animal proteins.

It's estimated that up to 12 to 13 per cent of Western University's student population is either vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

"We're not negating meats, it's still part of our menu," Miller said. 

Unfortunately though, cooking with less meat and offering lighter options won't necessarily be lighter on students' pocket books. 

"It's equal on the wallet," he said. "Is it more expensive to have a stir fry with almonds, pecans and green beans than a steak? The answer, probably, is no." 

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca