Vacaville Unified School District is located in the heart of Northern California, just 54 miles away from San Francisco and 34 miles away from Sacramento. While they might not be as well known as their neighbors, this school district serving 12,500 students 8,500 lunches and 3,500 breakfasts daily is leading the pack in sustainability, local food and menu innovation. Today we’re chatting with their Director of Child Nutrition and Chef / Culinary Manager about why they’re adding meat made from plants to the menu, how Impossible™ Burger is helping them win over parents and their #1 piece of advice for any other schools who want to do the same.
Impossible Foods: What made you want to add plant-based products to your menu?
Juan Cordon, Director of Child Nutrition: We’ve been playing with plant-based meat on and off for the last ten years in different districts, but always as an afterthought versus a focus. Then about six years ago, I noticed a lot of fast food restaurants & foodservice giants adding plant-based proteins to their menus. That’s when I told the team that we needed to take this more seriously.
At that time, there weren’t any big brands who wanted to provide anything for schools. We started conversations with your broker about two years ago, but Impossible Foods didn’t have any product for schools at that time so I started looking for other options. We found a smaller company who did have the capability to serve schools, but no one knew their brand so it wasn’t helpful for us.
Last year Chef Richie, who is from the Bay Area and really into creating delicious builds with plant-based meat, brought in some products from his previous contacts and started experimenting with them. We were even in talks with a huge international food brand, but the product just didn’t perform well. Then I saw an article that said you were doing business with the Palo Alto Unified School District, so I reached out again. Your team came out to our main campus to see how to make Impossible Burger work for us and went above and beyond to give us retail packs for our meal boxes. That is what ultimately helped get Impossible Burger on the menu -- if your team hadn’t been so supportive, we wouldn’t have brought it on.
Your team came out to our main campus to see how to make Impossible Burger work for us, then went above and beyond to give us retail packs for our meal boxes. That is what ultimately helped get Impossible Burger on the menu -- if your team hadn’t been so supportive, we wouldn’t have brought it on.
Impossible Burger comes in Child Nutrition-labeled bulk and patties for easy menu application
IF: Was it easy to add Impossible™ dishes to the menu?
JC: Yes, and the timing was perfect. Friends of the Earth(opens in a new tab) (an advocacy group that partners with schools to drive sustainability awareness) reached out and asked us if we’d be interested in doing a Meatless Monday program. I said, ‘If we’re going to do it, let’s lean in 100%,’ so we decided to go meatless for the entire month of December.
We also got lucky because Chef Richie is a big fan of plant-based meat and he does wonderful things with your products. The best part is that we didn’t need to put much focus on it because Impossible™ meat made from plants is so easy to cook - you just throw it in the oven, heat it and serve it. There are better ways to feature it, but we’ve been getting used to new business and December is the first time we’re putting huge focus on Meatless December.
IF: Tell us about your journey to launch.
Richie Wilim, Chef / Culinary Manager: To launch successfully, I knew we’d need buy-in from two different stakeholders: parents and our Front of House staff. To help introduce parents to the product, I included retail packs of Impossible Burger in our meal boxes, which give families a precursor for what we want to put on our menus. It lets them try the products, see what food trends are coming up and make the connection that we’re using local and well known brands.
Then we needed to get staff buy-in because many of them have never tried meat made from plants before, and we knew they needed to be our biggest advocates since they are directly interacting with students. We trained them on the product then had them cook it, and it was really cool to see how positively they reacted and watch them shift their perspective. Having a product like Impossible Burger that tastes so good was half the battle, but I did spend a lot of time encouraging them to be open and to break old stereotypes about what ‘school food’ should be. It’s also important to help them understand that this is where the world is going, and if we don’t expose the kids to it, someone else will.
Educating staff is crucial for success when menuing Impossible™ dishes
IF: What was the recipe creation process like?
J: Richie is always trying new things -- he used to work with high tech companies and learned from what they were doing. His approach to creating delicious food is by focusing on the things that go on top of the protein, whether that’s a sauce, relish, etc. It can be a basic build, but the toppings are the true highlight that make the final dish taste incredible. One of the reasons we love Impossible Burger so much is that it’s the perfect canvas that takes Richie’s ideas to the next level. They work perfectly for our kitchen and really taste incredible.
RW: Impossible Burger is very similar to ground beef -- it cooks well, it holds well and it’s been a great offering. What I really love about the product is that it tastes like meat, so it’s a cool thing to offer for those students who aren’t vegetarian and will never give up meat, but still want the option to make better choices for the environment.
One of the reasons we love Impossible Burger so much is because it is the perfect canvas. It cooks well and tastes like meat from a cow, so it’s a cool thing to offer for those students who aren’t vegetarian but still want to make better choices for the environment.
IF: How have parents been responding to the menu?
JC: We post our menu online for everyone to see and Impossible Burger is a huge marketing tool. I’ve received a ton of comments from parents like ‘Wow I can’t believe you’re offering Impossible Burger!’
In the past, many people didn’t have faith in school food, and I want to bring respect to our foodservice segment and let people know we’re not just buying low cost items. We’re aware of trends, what’s out there, and we’re going to feature it. I don’t know how many other restaurants are offering Impossible Burger in Vacaville, so the fact that we’re offering these unique products makes us special. We’re just 30 minutes away from major food hubs like San Francisco and Palo Alto, so we can do the same thing they can and have the same impact on our students!
RW: Juan is always comparing our kitchen to the tech giants, but we have a bigger challenge because we have to feed more students with less resources in a shorter time frame. It’s so cool when we can look at the menu and see local & recognizable names pop up. We also feature a blurb on the back from our dietician, who geeks out on the cool things we’re featuring on the menu.
Vacaville School District December Menu
IF: What is your Meatless December campaign?
JC: Friends of the Earth has reached out a few different times about Meatless Monday campaigns, but we’ve never gotten involved because we don’t believe meatless meals should be a sporadic feature - they should be on the menu everyday. That was why we ultimately decided to dive in with the Meatless December campaign - we're serving meatless meals for the entire month.
RW: We utilize Impossible Burger in a few different ways: a simple swap out of ground beef in our chili recipe, a burger build and a really delicious pizza topping. We’re featuring Impossible™ recipes at least 3 times a week and are excited to be able to give delicious options to our students in their favorite builds.
IF: What advice would you give to other schools who are thinking about adding meat made from plants to the menu?
JC: You just have to dive in -- you either want to do it or you don’t. I have a soft spot because of my daughter who is 21 years old and has been a vegetarian since she was 5 (but went vegan at 14). I’ve been showing her my menus since she was young and she would always comment on how there were no plant-based offerings, which made me want to change the way I build menus. That’s why we’ve added innovative thinkers to our team who believe in plant-based proteins, like Richie and our dietician who is a vegetarian. It’s easy to see that things are changing, and younger people come with fresher, better ideas. You either embrace them or get pushed aside, so I’m letting younger people follow the trends to change the world.
You also have to hire the right people. In my opinion, a lot of school districts don’t have chefs, but schools are the largest foodservice operator ever! You hear all about the high tech cafeterias, but they’re not going to be busier than the local school. If you have people who know how to cook and want to change things, your menu is going to be amazing. I asked Richie, ‘Why do you want to work in schools?” and he said, “ I want a job with purpose.’
That gives me confidence - I just have to say yes to all these ideas and I know that kids are going to eat better in Vacaville. You just have to jump in and treat it like you want to do it. If you don’t want to do it, move aside. If you do, join us! Once something becomes popular in the child nutrition segment, everyone does it, so you can either be a trendsetter, or a follower late in the game. It’s your choice.
You just have to dive in - you either want to do it or you don’t. But once something becomes popular in the child nutrition segment, everyone does it. You can either be a trendsetter, or a follower late in the game. It’s your choice.
Interested in learning more about how to bring Impossible™ products to your school district? Head over to ImpossibleFoods.com/schools(opens in a new tab) or email us at [email protected](opens in a new tab)!