Lentils on the Menu

Universities are interested in lentils to meet student demand for healthy and sustainable food

by Saskatchewan Pulse Growers Staff

When looking to change consumer behaviour in North America, Saskatchewan Pulse Growers (SPG) knows it is not something that happens overnight. “North Americans are not traditional consumers of lentils, so it is our job to promote lentils and make them more familiar to the average consumer, in order to gain a larger share of the plate,” explains Rachel Kehrig, SPG’s Director of Communications and Market Promotion. “With emerging trends including a strong interest in plant-forward foods, we believe there are tremendous value opportunities for Saskatchewan pulse growers in the North American market.”

SPG has been working to promote pulses in the United States (U.S.) and Canada for several years, with a particular focus on lentils. By creating new market opportunities in these countries, particularly the U.S., SPG is looking to increase overall global demand for lentils, while also alleviating some of the risks Saskatchewan growers face in dealing with less stable international markets.

One of the ways SPG is trying to familiarize consumers with lentils is by working closely with college and university campus dining services across the U.S. to make lentils a more regular feature on their menus. Some of the college and university dining services are serving more than of 25,000 meals to students every day, and are trying to do it with a limited budget. These dining programs are also striving to meet their student customer’s demands for innovative, sustainable, and healthy food choices.

“Lentils really fit the bill across the board for college and university dining programs. They are cost-efficient, sustainably produced, and lend well to the plant-forward eating trend that is emerging amongst Generation Z and millennials, who make up the college and university demographic,” says Kehrig.

One of the recent activities SPG undertook to promote lentils to this market segment, was to host a chef-training program in partnership with Harvard University, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The hands-on program engaged 12 chefs that work across the University’s dining program, to build ideas and innovate around the ways lentils could be further incorporated into their daily menus.

“By bringing these chefs together with their peers across campus, we were able to identify some of the challenges they had been facing when it came to cooking with lentils, and brainstorm solutions that would address these barriers,” says Amber Johnson, SPG’s Manager of Market Promotion, who coordinated the training program with Harvard University. “The hands-on aspect allowed the chefs to get creative with lentils and try new things, with support from SPG, to help them expand their knowledge base on lentils.”

Technical information about different lentil applications including using purees, as well as different ways to better build flavour in lentils resonated with the chef participants. These topics led to the group producing a wide array of menu ideas including lentil “fries”, lentil gnocchi, lentil-filled empanadas, a lentil vegetable stir fry, and even sweet lentil fritters. “The chefs really challenged each other to innovate in creative ways, very much outside of their comfort zones and produced, in a very short time, some impressive dishes that could end up on menus within the week,” says Johnson.

By engaging with the culinary leaders who are in the kitchens every day, responsible for feeding such a high volume of meals, SPG believes there is opportunity to inspire immediate change in the way consumers think about lentils, and how they eat them. “I believe programs like this will impact the way Harvard chefs build menus, and we will see more lentils appearing more often and in more varied applications across their daily menu offerings,” says Johnson.