Web Exclusive | June 2015 | By Nicole Duncan

Lessons from Menus of Change

A recap of this year’s conference on nutritious and sustainable menus.
QSR leaders talked at Menus of Change conference about healthy fast food and the environment.
Dan Kish, Panera Bread's senior vice president of food, discusses the brand's new line of broth bowls at the Menus of Change conference in Hyde Park, New York. image used with permission.

The Menus of Change initiative, launched in 2012 as a partnership between the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, aims to bring together leaders in foodservice and public health to address serious food-industry concerns, including obesity, healthcare costs, food sourcing and production issues, and environmental impacts of food production.

The third-annual Menus of Change conference covered these issues June 17–19 at the CIA’s main campus in Hyde Park, New York, bringing together restaurant executives, chefs, and researchers to explore solutions to these pressing concerns.

Below is a day-by-day recap of the Menus of Change conference; click on the headlines to read on.

Where Health and Capitalism Meet

If last year’s Menus of Change emphasized a need to shift away from meat-based menus, this year’s conference extolled the business advantages associated with such a shift.

Tim Ryan, president of the CIA, said in his welcome address that America is much better at capitalism than prohibition, citing consumer aversion to banning soda beverages as an example. He explained that lasting change would occur when businesses found an economically sound way to offer healthier options—not through governmental regulations.

“We have to help them innovate and do what it takes to save the environment … and to be healthier,” Ryan said of chefs and operators.

“The strength comes from the foodservice, from the consumer, not from the regulatory agencies.”

This mission, which walks a tightrope between healthy, eco-friendly, and profitable, saw some mixed results in the past year: Red meat consumption continued to decline in the U.S., but it increased in developing nations; Congress declared the nutritionally ambiguous potato to be a vegetable; and last year’s “it” ingredients, kale and Brussels sprouts, trickled down to the mainstream.

Read more from the first day of the Menus of Change conference.

A Bowl in One

At Menus of Change, chefs, C-suite execs, nutritionists, and health policy experts alike preached a mission to imbue the foodservice industry with healthier menu options. But as compelling as these appeals were, most begged the simple question of how.

Consumers and operators worried that they would have to sacrifice taste and satisfying portions to eat well, said Pam Smith, a culinary nutritionist and foodservice consultant who works with Darden Restaurants and Disney Parks and Resorts.

“No matter what, it’s always about the flavor,” Smith said during a special breakout session featuring the CIA Healthy Menus R&D Collaborative and Panera Bread. “We really do believe in employing that stealth health approach.”

Beyond flavor and “craveability,” the costs associated with more premium ingredients can also be a deterrent for any restaurateur watching the bottom line.

Dan Kish, senior vice president of food at Panera and former dean at the CIA, walked through how the fast casual is putting a nutritional emphasis on its new broth bowls.

Read more from the second day of the Menus of Change conference.

Keeping Water on Tap

Many of the themes at the Menus of Change conference have been obvious issues for the restaurant industry, including antibiotic-treated protein, sustainable agriculture, and more nutritious plates among others.

But on the final day, presenters broached the important but less obvious topic of water. Will Sarni, a director with Deloitte Consulting, and Thomas Harter, a groundwater hydrologist at the University of California, Davis, discussed how such a basic resource would figure into the future of foodservice.

Businesses and customers should not wait for the government to lead the discussion and set regulations around the water supply, Sarni said.

“Public policy is catching up; as a business, you can’t afford to do that,” Sarni said. “The strength comes from the foodservice, from the consumer, not from the regulatory agencies.”

Read more from the final day of the Menus of Change conference.

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