As of February, the army will be serving lentil burgers, grain salads and whole wheat pita.
It’s a major departure for an institution accustomed to offering canned corn, burekas and fluffy white rolls.
“It’s all going to be a lot healthier,” said Colonel Avi Harel, commander of the Food Center, the army’s food logistics arm.
The army’s move to a healthier diet is partially a result of an October protest by vegan soldiers who said they had nothing to eat at mess hall meals.
There are around 500 vegans in the army, said Harel. Until now, vegan soldiers were given small allowances to buy alternatives outside the mess hall, where meat, eggs and dairy reign.
The lentil burgers will only be served to the vegans, noted Harel.
Yet the fact that the Israeli army will be serving lentil burgers at all “is amazing,” said nutritionist Orit Ofir. “It gives you all the protein and iron without the cholesterol of meat.”
The food commander worked with several nutritionists to rethink the army’s menu and add more vegan-friendly fare. Their major concern was finding a protein substitute for the army’s traditional meat lunch, and they chose legume and nut burgers, similar to the ones currently found in supermarket freezers and vegan burger chains.
Even people who shy away from a vegan diet tend to like the dense lentil patties, said Channa Fouldes, who offers vegan burgers on homemade, gluten-free buns with a side of sweet-potato fries in her vegan-friendly restaurant, Nagila, in downtown Jerusalem.
“A burger is always satisfying,” she said.
The army’s other menu changes, however, will be instituted in all army kitchens, in response to soldiers’ demands for healthier options.
“Soldiers don’t want burekas” — the savory, filo dough-filled pastries that are heavy with trans fats — and would like to see fewer salads made with mayonnaise and canned vegetables, said Harel.
His unit has overhauled the entire army diet, moving from readymade meats and salads to fresher, raw materials that require a different kind of cooking approach.
While field rations will still utilize prepared foods, the army mess halls will add a host of different items, like pita and rolls made from 80% whole wheat flour, more legume-based and raw vegetable salads, and rice, couscous and pasta partially made with whole wheat. Canola oil will be the oil of choice in the kitchen.
“We’re already using far less oil in the kitchen,” said Harel. “It’s a steep learning curve for the cooks. They’ve had to learn how to cook differently.”
The army will be adding soy-based products to the usual dairy-based breakfast and dinner, but that won’t happen until the summer, explained Harel.
The IDF’s shift in menu shows that veganism is becoming a way of life in Israel, said nutritionist Ofir, who spoke at the recent Vegan 2 conference, held in the central town of Givatayim.
“It’s a real trend with roots,” she said. “More restaurants and chains have vegan menus. Even companies like Strauss have bean salads and Tnuva has soy products, while Tivol has vegan burgers. Those are signs that it’s really strengthening.”
Ofir pointed to a 2012 visit from vegan activist Gary Yourofsky, his first outside the US, as a turning point for many Israelis. Besides speaking several times around the country, parts of his speech were broadcast on Channel 2, resulting in one of the channel’s most-watched segments.
“It changed the way people eat,” said Ofir. “From what I know, the new vegans are doing it for ideological reasons. It’s about animal rights and the environment and they’re very dedicated to it.”
At last summer’s Vegan Fest, 15,000 Israelis gathered to eat pea-based hot dogs and Domino’s vegan pizza topped with soy cheese. At Friday’s sold-out Vegan 2 conference, nutritionists and vegan chefs spoke about finding sources of protein and iron in the vegan diet. There are more than two dozen vegan restaurants and cafes throughout the country, including the Buddha Burger chain in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Eilat, and the Vegan Shwarma franchise in Tel Aviv, Beersheba and Jerusalem.
In many ways, Israelis are easy converts to veganism or a more meat-free lifestyle, said Ophir, pointing to chickpea-based falafel and hummus as staples of the local diet.
“We love our milk and meat, but we also love legumes,” she said.
But when an institution as large and influential as the IDF becomes a proponent of veganism and healthy eating, it’s a sign that times are changing.
“There’s a demand for it like there is everywhere else,” said Harel. “We can influence what’s on the plate of the soldier.”