Impossible Foods founder and CEO Pat Brown has been talking about how to get his company’s products in front of children and teach them about what they are as far back as 2014.
Brown, who was a well-respected scientist when he started the plant-based food company a decade ago, began his career as a pediatrician. Through Impossible Foods, he wanted to combine his passion for using science to create food free from animal agriculture with teaching children how to connect what’s on their plates to what’s happening in the environment. He’s been talking about this desire with Impossible Foods Vice President of Communications Jessica Appelgren for years.
“It’s profound, you know, the impact you can have on the planet — one person,” Appelgren said. “This is something in each child’s immediate control, right? They can’t control energy systems, but they really can control how what they eat impacts the climate — and then the effects they might have on their peers around that, and the effect they might have on their parents and their grandparents.”
Impossible Foods has taken recent steps to engage with young people and let them know more about the ecological impacts of eating products derived from animals. For Earth Day, the company put out an online guide, “The Birds and the Trees,” that advises teens about how to talk to their parents about traditional meat’s impact on climate change. Weeks later, Impossible Foods released a report about kids’ familiarity with global warming and what they can do to stop its negative effects.
And last month, Impossible Burger received a Child Nutrition Label from the Department of Agriculture. Last week, the company’s Impossible Sausage also received the label. This means these products have gone through a rigorous process to codify its nutritional value in a way that makes it easier for a public school district to use them in menu planning for cafeteria breakfast and lunch.
Even though the CN label essentially opens up another market for Impossible Foods, Appelgren said this new push has nothing to do with making more money for the company. There isn’t as much of a financial benefit from moving into school cafeterias as there would be for other sectors, she said. It also isn’t intended as a marketing campaign.
“I think it’s more about the mission of the company, and finding a way to educate and involve younger people in that mission earlier,” she said.
Getting on the cafeteria tray
Brown has famously said that the whole reason he started Impossible Foods was to make the animal agriculture industry obsolete by 2035. And since the plant-based company started in 2011, that goal has remained at the center of many of its decisions.
Appelgren said it drove the push to get Impossible Foods into schools as well. The company has always been encouraged by some school programs where students or local operations grow the food that is served in the cafeteria, she said. However, those programs do require a big programmatic shift — creating garden space and changing curricula for food growing and harvesting, shifting menus to work with the school’s own produce, and potentially altering the way the cafeteria stores, displays and sells its offerings.
Bringing plant-based meat into the school cafeteria is an easier way for the school and students to become more eco-friendly, Appelgren said. No large procedural changes are necessary. The plant-based meat can easily be substituted for the animal-derived version they already serve.
“This is something in each child’s immediate control, right? They can’t control energy systems, but they really can control how what they eat impacts the climate — and then the effects they might have on their peers around that, and the effect they might have on their parents and their grandparents.”
Vice president of communications, Impossible Foods
A study released last year from sustainability nonprofit the Forum for the Future talks about how important it is for public schools to increase and enhance their plant-based options. The National School Lunch Program served more than 4.8 billion lunches in 2019, the last full year that school was not disrupted by the pandemic. According to statistics cited in that report, this program has a reach of 100,000 schools and institutions nationwide, and can potentially serve 30 million students a year. Some barriers to school cafeterias adopting more plant-based options cited by the report include an overall lack of adaptable choices, as well as differences in school administration culture and education about why changes should be made.
This kind of research, coupled with Impossible Foods’ current manufacturing capacity, make this the right time for Impossible Burgers and Sausage to be available to schools, Appelgren said. Impossible’s manufacturing partnership with OSI Group, as well as its own factories, put the company in position to supply any demand that might come out of K-12 schools, she said.
Impossible Foods has been hearing from school districts interested in serving its products for a while, Appelgren said. The company developed pilot programs for four districts — Palo Alto Unified in Palo Alto, California; Aberdeen in Aberdeen, Washington; Deer Creek Public in Edmond, Oklahoma; and Union Public in Tulsa, Oklahoma — as it continued to pursue the CN label. Appelgren said Impossible has been hands off with the districts about how they will use and promote the plant-based meat option. She was clear: The company does not want to use this as a marketing opportunity.
“The intention is to make our product available everywhere meat is served, and a lot of meat is served in our school lunch program nationally,” Appelgren said. “Let’s make this available, and just as in foodservice and retail, if people want it, they will purchase it.”
For school lunches, Impossible is doing as much as it can to bring the price of its plant-based meat to parity with traditional ground beef, similar to its efforts in foodservice and at retail, Appelgren said. While it may not be exactly the same right now, she said, “the gulf is not too great.” School districts that offer Impossible definitely need to be motivated to have it, she said, but it will not be so cost-prohibitive that they couldn’t afford it.
Impossible Foods’ sustainability factor compared to the animal meat industry appears to be a motivator so far. In the press release about the CN label, Michael Morris, senior manager of culinary offer implementation at Sodexo, said adding Impossible Burgers to the cafeteria foodservice operator’s menus will help the company meet its goal of reducing carbon emissions by a third by 2025.
“The Impossible Burger is a product we think teenagers are going to get excited about,” Morris said in the release. “We are interested in how the popularity of this low-carbon food can help effectively lower a whole district’s carbon footprint, while also getting students more engaged in thinking about their connection to the planet.”
In an email, Appelgren said the approval of Impossible Sausage’s CN label was especially exciting because it can get the plant-based meat offerings in the cafeteria for school breakfasts. In 2019, there were more than 2.4 billion breakfasts served at K-12 schools.
“We are excited to play a small part in kick-starting the school day in a nourishing and sustainable way,” she said in the email.
Impossible Foods is not going to push school districts to be overzealous with branding on their cafeteria offerings, Appelgren said, though it will try to get them to promote that the dishes use plant-based meat, since that is an important consideration for dietary needs. The company will be putting together resources for districts to use, including recipes and case studies, Appelgren said. Impossible Foods wants to navigate the line between being a helpful and informative resource and marketing, she said.
“I think it really is going to be up to the individual districts and principals and superintendents to make choices that work for their population but definitely won’t be initiated by us,” she said. “I think we’ll be able to provide materials and they can use [them] as desired.”
Appelgren said schools that serve Impossible might also be able to make plant-based meat accessible to children who would not otherwise be able to afford it. According to preliminary USDA statistics, 76.9% of all school lunches served in 2020 were to lower-income students who qualified for free and reduced-price meals.
According to information from the USDA, no other plant-based meat companies had CN labels at press time.
How to talk to parents about climate change
Offering plant-based options at school is just one part of Impossible’s youth outreach. The company also wants kids to appreciate why they are the better alternative. For Earth Day this year, Impossible Foods put together a colorful online report called “The Birds and the Trees” with chapters that are tongue-in-cheek references to the kinds of awkwardly titled lessons adolescents get about human sexuality. This report deals with a topic that is literally hotter: climate change.
“The idea really was how can we provide a resource for teens that care about climate change to actually talk to their parents about it with an informed perspective — with the data to share, with answers for typical arguments, and so forth,” Appelgren said. “It’s a conversation guide.”
The report looks at climate change’s ties to animal agriculture, pulling together charts, satellite imagery and statistics. The data is attention-grabbing and easy to read through, but links to additional information — including TED Talks, scientific journal articles and video explanations — allow users to learn more. Only a few parts close to the end include language promoting Impossible Burger as a ground beef alternative.
“I volunteered to share everything I’ve learned and our team has learned along the way with any company that cares to invite us in for a talk. [We] definitely want to collaborate on on this topic.”
Vice president of communications, Impossible Foods
Again, Appelgren said the report is not intended as a marketing tool. Other plant-based companies told Impossible they were glad it was sharing kid-friendly sustainability information, and were interested in working together to create similar reports and messaging, she said.
“Definitely, this is a space of collaboration first,” she said. “I volunteered to share everything I’ve learned and our team has learned along the way with any company that cares to invite us in for a talk.”
Impossible Foods’ research has shown that educating young people about the link between eating meat and climate change is likely to be effective in getting Gen Z to change their diets. In 2019, Impossible Foods’ Kids in the Kitchen report summarized attitudes of 1,000 U.S. consumers ranging from baby boomers to Gen Z about plant-based meat. Last month, the company released its Kids Rule report, which talked to 1,200 young people ages 5 to 18 about their knowledge of climate change and how it is impacted by animal agriculture.
Both of these reports point to basic top-line findings: Younger consumers are more likely to eat plant-based food and eat less meat in order to save the environment. In the 2019 report, more than half of Gen Zers and about half of millennials said they ate plant-based meat at least once a month. Millennials with children of their own were more likely to eat plant-based meat more often, and more millennial parents than their Gen X and baby boomer counterparts have tried to teach their children about sustainability and how food choices affect the environment.
The report published last month found that almost eight in 10 kids were at least familiar with climate change, and 87% said it was important to do something to stop or reduce it. Kids were optimistic about their potential contributions to help stop global warming, with 73% saying they could make at least some difference through their personal choices.
But many weren’t aware that animal agriculture contributed to global warming, the report showed. More than four out of five said cutting down trees, transportation, producing energy and trash had a role in climate change, but just 54% said the same about raising cows for meat and dairy. After those kids read a statement about the impact animal agriculture has on climate change, 78% said it was important to do something to reduce using cows for food.
Survey participants also read a statement describing the Impossible Burger that touted many of the company’s key marketing points about taste, appearance, sustainability and nutritional value. The largest percentage — 29% — said they were most interested in its sustainability aspects.
This research, Appelgren said, was foundational to the CN label and the educational website.
“We had assumptions that there wasn’t a lot of awareness or understanding about animal ag’s role in climate change, … but we definitely wanted to test that,” she said
These conclusions have been corroborated by independent research, including a survey done last year by Mattson and cited by the Plant-Based Foods Association in which 100% of Gen Zers cited concern for the environment as a reason they eat plant-based food.
‘It’s Gen Zs who are actually leading here’
While today’s young people are extremely savvy to marketing efforts by big brands, experts in messaging to children think they will be receptive to Impossible’s message.
Rob Lough, co-founder and chief brand officer at kid-targeted digital media firm KidsKnowBest, said that young people are already steeped in information on sustainability and climate change. His firm conducts monthly in-person or video chats with about 200 kids ranging in age from 5 to 18. Lough said they let the kids talk about what is interesting to them and ask no leading questions. About 15% of all of those children, he said, tend to talk about sustainability-related topics.
“What we’ve learned, especially with Gen Z, is they are on a mission to reform and change outdated norms, and really try and pave the way for a better, more positive future: one that can preserve society and communities, but also the planet.”
Global director, Wunderman Thompson Intelligence
“Kids as young as five are talking about it now — talking about plastic, saving the planet, recycling at home,” Lough said. “I’m guessing you wouldn’t have been seeing this fit even 10 years ago. These probably wouldn’t have been topics [of conversation].”
Emma Chiu, global director for international insight and trends firm Wunderman Thompson Intelligence, said Gen Z is both savvy about climate change and willing to make changes to benefit the environment. In a survey earlier this year of 3,000 people in the U.S., U.K. and China, 71% of Gen Zers said they would be willing to eat more alternative proteins in order to help the environment.
“It’s Gen Zs who are actually leading here, not millennials, even though millennials are closely in second place,” Chiu said.
While there’s no data to support the idea that kids will seek out foods also served at their school cafeteria, the fact that Impossible Foods is on the menu will send a message both to kids and parents, Lough said. If it’s branded — the cafeteria tags the meal as “Impossible sloppy Joes,” for example — the product name would get into the students’ lexicon. And if the student knows even from a basic standpoint that they are eating something that is not meat, it is the type of thing they will talk about with their parents, he said. Regardless, in school, the brand name and widespread demonstration of the product will get Impossible a lot of eyeballs, he said.
Parents are much more likely to be impacted by branding, Lough said. They would see Impossible’s name on cafeteria menus. If the children like their school lunches, this may convince the parents to try the plant-based product at home — especially since kids tend to avoid eating vegetables.
“I don’t think there’s any downside on that as long as there’s an option on the menu and you see the veggie burgers are Impossible,” Lough said. “I think it’s a stroke of genius, to be honest.”
Chiu noted that since many young people support plant-based eating, if their school decides to serve Impossible Burgers, they may see it as a “badge of honor.” Kids and teens are more likely to take pride in the fact that their school is doing something to preserve the environment, she said.
While today’s youth can spot an advertisement miles away, Chiu said they spend money. If they can see that a company is upholding values that are similar to theirs, they are more likely to support it.
“What we’ve learned, especially with Gen Z, is they are on a mission to reform and change outdated norms, and really try and pave the way for a better, more positive future: one that can preserve society and communities, but also the planet,” Chiu said. “And if messaging or education is there to further ground this belief, that will be definitely beneficial for them, because they’re not only learning for themselves, but they want to educate their peers, they want to educate their family, their friends.”