Pivoting to a New Default with DefaultVeg

by Ilana Braverman

Imagine a world where plant-based foods are served as the default menu option. Where nothing changes other than the way the items are presented on the menu. Meat and dairy options can still be included, but customers have to modify the item to include animal-based ingredients. 

You order a latte and it automatically comes with oat milk. You can choose to substitute oat milk with dairy milk if you prefer. 

In essence, it’s a nudge towards plant-based eating without restricting diner choice in any way. 

DefaultVeg launched to the public in January 2020 with that simple change as its mission. Nearly 20 institutions jumped on board, including the American Lung Association, Climate Nexus, and Harvard’s Office of Sustainability. The consensus throughout the community was excitement about this new concept – a way to frame the plant-based option as the delicious and easy one to choose. 

DefaultVeg has always been about a philosophical shift. The goal is not to change one-time events, but to change societal norms one event at a time, so that people start to see plant-based options as an appealing, commonplace choice. Peer-reviewed research has found that menus that use these plant-based “nudges” are enormously effective: they can increase diners who choose a plant-based entrée from about 7 percent to about 87 percent.

One great example is the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (JCUA), a Chicago-based Jewish social justice organization that now has this statement posted on their website:

“JCUA’s mission is to strive for justice and equity in our city, country and across the world. In order to align our food choices with these essential values, we adopt DefaultVeg as our food practice for all meetings and events hosted by JCUA, to shift our purchasing practices away from factory farming — a root cause of social injustice for humans, animals, and the environment.”

JCUA, which hosts an annual event for more than 400 people and 2-3 monthly committee meetings for groups of 20-30, will now be serving plant-based meals by default when they go back to eating in groups. 

This model can be replicated for any organization or institution—whether it’s an office meeting, a campus dining hall’s to-go menu, or an environmental organization’s upcoming conference. DefaultVeg is encouraging college students to ask their university departments and clubs to implement the shift according to their situation and their values. Other community advocates are being called to ask the same: default to plant-based options for their offices, organizations, book clubs, and more so that when we do return to eating in groups, we can default to a sustainable new normal.

DefaultVeg Ambassadors are currently requesting local cafés to default to plant-based milks, which would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and water usage. These milks are affordable when bought in bulk and will not expire as quickly as dairy milks. They’re also the most inclusive option, as many Americans, particularly much of the Black and Asian American communities, are lactose intolerant—and limited non-dairy options offered at an up-charge can be marginalizing.

If you work for a plant-based milk or other plant-based food company, DefaultVeg is actively seeking new partners. They work with brands to encourage retail and food service partners to adopt their products as the default menu option. Now is the time to hit the reset button and create not only a new normal, but a more resilient one. How? Go DefaultVeg.

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