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“Ugly” Vegetable-based Desserts for Public School Children

Vegetable-based desserts for the masses, starting with the hardest palates to please

Photo of Philip Saneski
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Could frozen vegetable-based desserts be developed using food waste—particularly “ugly” vegetable produce—and served in US school lunch cafeteria programs?

Currently 32 million school children are being fed on a $3.07 per meal budget provided by the USDA--which includes utility and utensil costs. The food is so bad elementary school students are forming blogs to make their school lunch protests’ public. Vegetables can be incorporated into desserts in delicious, healthy, and hidden ways. Most school children wouldn’t even realize they’re eating vegetables, and many parents would be happy their kids are actually eating vegetables.

Simultaneously, everyone here is already familiar with the issue of food waste; so I’ll reference relatable statistics:

  • UN Food & Agriculture Organization estimates food production globally, but never eaten, would be enough to feed 2 billion people.
  • 40% to 50% of root crops, fruits and vegetables
  • 2013: USDA & EPA launched US Food Waste Challenge, creating a platform for leaders and organizations across the food chain to share best practices on ways to reduce, recover and recycle food production loss and waste.
  • 2015: USDA & EPA jointly set the nation’s first-ever food waste reduction goal, calling for a 50% reduction by 2030.

Several government organizations, non-profits, food incubators, and of course student organizations have been cultivated as a result of the growing global issue. There are large companies paying millions to dispose literal metric tons of food waste in a responsible manner and “ugly” produce never even leaving the farm. While the current and upcoming generations face an accumulating global problem, healthy public school meals continue to be such a huge national void. As a chef, I can’t think of a better way to combat food waste issues and poor school lunches than to make kids smile with something delicious and surprisingly healthy.

If we want to feed the future of our nation healthy food daily, why not make carrot (pulp+peel) cake with chickpea flour and an aquafaba meringue base, a parsnip (peel) icing and a cinnamon-apple (dried pulp+skin) swirl? Why aren’t we feeding schoolchildren fudgy chocolate beet cakes or brownies that are lentil pulse flour based? In the summer, how about serving school children banana & carrot top sorbetto (carrots being in the parsley family, and parsley sharing a molecular affinity with bananas), or a sorbet with an apple-celery or a cucumber-basil base? For the winter, roasted cauliflower (+blubs) ice cream/cremeux with raisins, maybe with a butternut squash, sweet potato or celery root cake.

Sure, there is little to no profit in the school lunch business, but that’s because many companies have taken inapplicable approaches to fixing the US public school lunch program. Even though our Oakland-based neighbor Revolution Foods has been successful, they have not seen a financial profit since launching their first pilot program ten years ago. This may explain their recent business expansion into retail sales of family snacks and “meal kits” in the grocery aisle. As opposed to developing complete meals, it may be wiser to formulate a commercialized, single school lunch product that is part of a healthier, tastier, and more economical meal.

Is it possible for frozen vegetable-based desserts to make their way to the grocery store aisle, be sold in “meal kits” and/or on-demand through a phone app? Long-term, could public school children change our relationship with food by requesting school lunch desserts made with “ugly” vegetable produce at home for dinner?

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

Desserts can be flavorful AND healthy through vegetables.

Tell us about your work experience:

Fine-dining line cook and pastry chef. Future R&D Chef and Culinary Scientist. Research Chefs Association Student Committee President and Co-Founder. Fascinated by future food.

This post emerged from:

  • A group brainstorm
  • An Individual
  • An OpenIDEO Outpost or Chapter
  • A Kitchen Diary


Join the conversation:

Photo of Ashley Zanolli

Why focus on ugly f&v for desserts? There is so much perfectly good produce going to waste at schools!

Photo of Philip Saneski

Hi Ashley, thanks for your reply! 

I focus on ugly vegetables because it is the a more neutral step towards incorporating wasted food ingredients into child food (as oppose to cryovacing acid whey into a tandoori chicken marinade or spent coffee-cocoa soil). Hypothetically, such frozen desserts would be made in a dessert production facility where they can be shipped to school lunch cafeterias, so they don't have to be prepared on-site. Similar to how fine-dining restaurants have exclusive relationships with farms, a symbiotic relationship can be established between a food R&D facility and (ideally local) farmers looking for a way to transport rejected produce. Vegetables are my focus for children to eat healthier earlier in life with an ending course considered to be a "reward," one that is lower in sugar and hopefully curtail sweet cravings. Of course ugly fruits can be fun, flavorful options,; but ugly vegetables aren't as immediately ready to consume and must be transformed (or hidden). This is nevertheless a long-term project that would utilize ingredients under the umbrella term of food waste--which hopefully can also include perfectly good produce going to waste at schools!

Charred bellpepper and plum gazpacho anyone? And, for a lunchtime dessert??

Photo of Ashley Zanolli

Neat project. Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Philip.