How Impossible Foods is getting Gen Z interested in plant-based meat

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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.”

Aberdeen

Jessica Appelgren

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.

Pat Brown

Optional Caption

Courtesy of Impossible Foods

 

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.



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