How Shanghai teens and schools are getting in on the plant-based movement

From woke young people to school dining halls, the plant-based movement is sweeping the city

Photograph: courtesy Z-Rou
'Only 10 percent of energy is transferred through the tiers of the food system, so it’s actually very inefficient for humans to consume animals,' James Li tells me. The recent high school grad’s interest was piqued during his senior year environmental studies course at Shanghai American School Pudong when he learned about the huge amount of resources that go into animal farming. ‘We’re a lot better off consuming plants instead.’

Li isn’t a vegetarian – he’s quick to state – but he’s consciously engaged in eating less meat and spreading the good word. Since the summer he’s been interning with Z-Rou, a Shanghai-founded plant-based meat company, helping with its education programming in schools and around the city. The company’s education programmes are run by Shiyin Wang. Born in Shanghai but raised in the States, Wang’s background is in environment and education but he transitioned into food on his return to Shanghai a few years ago. He started Kaixin Cooking to develop healthier Chinese foods and is part of the consulting team behind the recently opened, much-buzzed-about plant-based restaurant DuLi on Donghu Lu.

Photograph: courtesy DuLi

'The traditional Chinese diet is actually pretty healthy without necessarily thinking too explicitly about tracking nutrition. People eat a lot of vegetables and have a wide variety of choices in ingredients,’ reflects Wang. ‘But modern food in China is quite unhealthy because people eat a lot of meat now, the dishes are very oily, there’s a lot of processed ingredients. People don’t really focus on developing flavours out of a wide variety of vegetables and spices like they used to. It’s more just sauce out of a packet.‘My end mission is to improve the way that kids in China eat,’ he continues. ‘I think we can reduce our dependence on meat. I want to help kids to be more aware of their eating and find enjoyment from healthier foods that also taste good. Obviously, that’s going to take work to develop better tasty, healthy foods.’ It was this goal that spurred him to start working with Z-Rou on an education programme.

Right now, the team is working with Shanghai American School, YK Pao, Shanghai French School and German School Shanghai, all of which were partnerships launched at the request of students and parents looking for non-meat options. They’ve also recently linked up with Dulwich College Shanghai Pudong. The College’s front of house supervisor Bosco Velho, who coordinates the school's dining programme, says the move towards more meat alternative options is about both choice and sustainability more than anything. ‘For us, it’s not about becoming vegetarian or following a trend,’ he explains, referencing the Dulwich network’s key focus on sustainability as a part of its mission across its schools in Asia. The upcoming plan for the college’s dining programme this year is about ‘finding links and bridges to how food permeates into the UN’s Sustainable Development goals, into different aspects of our lives and the impacts that the food we eat has on these different aspects of our lives and the world.

old boy
Photograph: courtesy Z-Rou

’While it’s all in the initial stages, plant-based meat like Z-Rou is a component of what Dulwich has in the works. Beyond this meat-alternative ‘enhanced option’ as Velho calls it, the school is looking into more locally sourced and grown ingredients and encouraging student participation in owning their dining experience through recipe competitions and the like. I ask why these changes are coming now – is this year any different than others? ‘I don’t think it was necessarily because this was the right time to do it – it just needs to be done, we need to start somewhere and each one of us needs to take ownership in making change, instead of waiting for someone else or some other time,’ muses Velho. It’s certainly a sentiment that others in Shanghai seem to be picking up on, too.
Eat Your Veggies!
Photograph: Ella Olsson via Unsplash

Eat Your Veggies!

Dietitian Katrin Lee of Jiahui Health gives the lowdown on how to encourage good nutrition habits in your little eaters with these seven tips

Start young
Expose kids to a wide variety of foods early. Adding solids into a baby’s diet is a very important phase to establish their sense of taste and in building a good relationship with different foods. While trialling different foods, try not to pick according to your own preferences as it reduces your baby’s choices indirectly. Pick up and trial as many different foods as much as you can.

Keep trying 
If your baby dislikes any particular foods on the first try, don’t be afraid of trying a second, third and fourth time. Also test out different cooking methods, textures, shapes and consistency– mashed potato vs baked potato, cooked tomato vs raw tomato. You’re the role model Make it a practice to have proper meals with family, without TV or digital devices, to establish a routine mealtime and good eating habits. Make sure you are also eating varied foods to set an example. Get the kids involved! Bring your kids to the supermarket and let them pick a vegetable that they are interested in. Involve kids in food preparation and the cooking process to increase their motivations and the likelihood they’ll eat what they’ve chosen. Do avoid forcing or chasing kids to eat.

Increase the appeal 
You can use a masking technique by mixing vegetables with foods that have a similar colour or texture. For example, cauliflower puree can be incorporated into mashed potatoes or carrots mashed into sweet potatoes. Create colourful and creative dishes with vegetables to draw younger kids’ attention.

Don’t force a picky teen, give them options 
For picky eaters, especially for teenagers, it’s not a good idea to force them to eat things they don’t want to as that age tends to want to stick to their own thoughts and preferences. However, still offering them exposure to foods they are picky about is important. For example, if a teen doesn’t like fruit, having fruit available and on display in the house increases the likelihood of them eating it. Otherwise, if there is no fruit readily available, they won’t eat any. 

You can still eat local
In Shanghai, there are a lot of soy-based high protein foods available which are nutrient-rich, such as soy milk, kaofu, suji and tofu pudding, which kids often like as it has nice sweet flavour.