Meatless Monday: The Rock Stars of Food Forward

"Chef Wanda is a rock star," Ken Botts told me. So when I met Chef Wanda White at a Food Forward event at Florida Atlantic University, I was expecting a tatted, dynamic millennial, not a lunch lady with a Texas twang and a no-nonsense manner. But Botts, food policy manager with the Humane Society of the United States and no slouch himself, is right. Chef Wanda is a rock star, the perfect ambassador for Food Forward, which gives food service professionals the resources to take their food forward and serve more plant-based options.

Food Forward provides apps, meatless recipes, menu plans, messaging, chef training and team building. Programming is customized to suit each institution and -- get this -- it's free. Now in its third year, Food Forward is funded by the Humane Society of the United States, which works to protect all animals, including the ones that can end up on your plate.

"Whether it's the USDA or U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommending we should all eat more plants and less meat, the Food and Agriculture Organization stating that animal agriculture contributes 15 percent of the world's human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, or Food Navigator reporting that plant-based eating is going mainstream, the reasons just add up," says Alli Clute, the Humane Society's food policy and events manager.

To make the switch to meatless, though, many businesses need another reason -- a compelling bottom line. Food Forward offers it. "Valley Hospital in New Jersey reduced their annual meat purchases by five percent saving roughly $46,000, and Oakland Unified School District's plate cost for meatless meals is down to $1.20," says Clute. "Entire K-12 chool districts, hospitals universities as well as over-arching foodservice corporations groups like Compass Group are implementing meat reduction initiatives." Food costs and carbon output go down, employee wellness and productivity go up, and Food Forward is designed to make it all easy to implement.

Miami-Dade Public Schools adopted Food Forward's Lean and Green programming last year. "It fits right into our departmental goals of lean, green and healthy," says the school system's nutrition wellness coordinator Audra Wright. "It's innovative, it's kind to the environment. Everyone gets it."

Meatless makeovers are only part of Food Forward programming and appeal. "Food service professionals want more information and ideas," says Clute. So White and Botts have taken their show on the road. They've been a mean green team since Botts launched and White ran Mean Greens, the nation's first dedicated vegan dining hall -- in Texas, of all places.

Botts and White have led two dozen Food Forward events across the country. Free (and meat-free) for participants, the day kicks off with a tofu scramble breakfast and brings food service pros together to meet, learn, collaborate and brainstorm.Chef Wanda shows how doable and delicious meatless meals are, demo-ing vegan chili for a crowd and serving it up for lunch. She doesn't just sling the chili, she walks the walk, explaining how moving to a vegan diet helped her lower her cholesterol, get off meds and lose weight.

Botts, bringing over 30 years of food service experience to Food Forward, is a great advocate for the program and for the people who make it happen. "Chefs are the heroes," he says. "They're the ones that make the decisions of what goes on the plate."

Miami-Dade Public Schools are now taking Food Forward past the plate and into the classroom, incorporating messaging into the curriculum on subjects from sustainability to healthier eating. "We want to be leaders," says Wright. "To cultivate a new culture that's going to take care of the environment."

All food service professionals have rock star potential. It's just a matter of taking Food Forward.

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Photo credit: Sylvia Elzafon



"Garbanzorizo" -- Mexican Chickpea Chorizo

Clute has been loving this meatless but meaty and spicy dish created by colleague and friend Eddie Garza. Garbanzorizo adds zest to breakfast burritos, tacos, nachos, anything, It's perfect for the International Year of Pulses. Or anytime.

1-1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ cup yellow onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cumin powder
¼ teaspoon dry thyme
½ teaspoon dry oregano
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon coriander powder
½ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon chipotle pepper powder
1 teaspoon chili powder
1- ½ tablespoons sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
1 teaspoon tamari
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
1 15-ounce can chickpeas, rinsed and drained

In a large pan, heat oil at medium-high. Add onion, garlic, and salt and cook for 5 to 6 minutes or until golden.

Add all dry spices and chopped sundried tomatoes and mix well. Add chickpeas, tamari, and vinegar and toss until combined.

Mash mixture lightly until chickpeas are crumbly. Mix well and cook for 5-7 more minutes, stirring occasionally.

Serves 4.