A plate overloaded with lasagna and salad. A buffet brimming with scrambled eggs and bacon. A break table piled high with pastries. When it comes to feeding attendees, meeting professionals tend to go whole hog — so nobody comes away feeling unsatisfied or unhappy.
At the average meeting, however, half of that food — or more — can go uneaten. What happens after it’s whisked from view? Sometimes it’s composted, or donated to local charities. Or oftentimes, just as in many American kitchens, it’s scraped into the trash and eventually hauled to the dump.
“It’s the inconvenient truth of event planning,” said Sandra Wood, CMP, an independent meeting professional in Ottawa, Canada. “We all know it’s happening. We don’t like it. But we don’t know how to address it.”
To be fair, food waste in the meetings industry simply mirrors North American cultural trends. Up to 40 percent of the food that the United States produces, raises, or catches goes uneaten, according to a 2014 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council. That amounts to $165 billion each year. Canada is responsible for another $27 billion. But even more sobering is the staggering social and environmental cost. The annual tally of wasted food could feed 25 million Americans — in a country where one in six people are food-insecure. And uneaten, uncomposted food is a pollutant, accounting for 16 percent of U.S. methane emissions.
It’s the inconvenient truth of event planning. We all know it’s happening. We don’t like it. But we don’t know how to address it.
It wasn’t always this way. In the 1970s, the United States wasted half as much food as now. As of 2014, each American threw away 10 times as much as someone in Southeast Asia. José Graziano da Silva, director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, has said that the developed world’s food waste could feed all of the 870 million hungry people in the world — a preface to the launch of a UN anti-waste campaign called Think, Eat, Save.
Three years ago, the European Union adopted a resolution to halve its food waste by 2020; in the United States and Canada, no such coordinated effort exists, with gleaning and food-waste-reduction programs falling to nonprofits, local governments, and individuals. Yet the voices to reduce food waste throughout the system — from the moment when the food is caught or harvested, to after it ends up on the plate — are growing.
Should you be making better decisions when it comes to the food you serve attendees? And how?
A FINE LINE BETWEEN PLENTY AND WASTE
Meeting professionals’ ingrained need to make sure there’s enough for everybody — and then some — can be a boon to attendees. But it also tends to run counter to event sustainability — and pave the way toward mounds, if not tons, of wasted food. “We work with abundance,” said Shawna McKinley, Vancouver-based director of sustainability for MeetGreen, an event-sustainability management company. “We don’t want our buffet trays to get too low.”
McKinley began working on sustainable events in 1994, as an intern at the Commonwealth Games, which were held in British Columbia, and has since worked with organizations ranging from McDonald’s and Oracle to the Unitarian Universalist Association. “When I look at the arc of sustainability within the meetings industry, it really started in the hotel industry in the ’80s, because it made financial sense,” McKinley said. “By proxy, it has come to affect the meetings industry.”
She cites one literal hotspot as a symbol of preventable event waste: the buffet table — also known as the spread that no planner likes to see empty. “We need to take account of what our refresh norms are,” McKinley said. “There’s an initial sense of nervousness or tension [about holding back on refreshing], but once you have a conversation with a planner about how to manage that with the caterer, planners are like, ‘that totally makes sense.’”
Food-waste diligence can take the form of simply waiting until a tray is empty, instead of 5- to 10-percent full, to refresh its contents. “It is an adjustment for planners,” Wood said. “If I have a buffet that is full at the end of the event, that’s not success — that’s failure. Give [the catering staff] permission to slow it down, or maybe close a buffet.”
Paul Salinger is vice president of marketing for Oracle, where he oversees sustainability practices at thousands of events a year. He’s seen empty serving trays at Oracle programs, and he’s not ashamed to admit it. “You have to not be afraid to run out of food,” Salinger said. “Part of the problem we see is that food guarantees are getting higher and higher, and you end up with a lot of wasted food.”
STEP ONE: TALK TO THE CHEF
If there’s a gospel in the meetings world, it’s planning, planning, planning — and when it comes to managing food waste, that means well-considered menu planning, long before an event, with the chef or catering staff. “Work with your caterers to set goals with them early,” said Aaron Elliott, Portland-based sustainability project manager for MeetGreen and sustainability coordinator for the annual IMEX America show in Las Vegas. “[Caterers] have a good understanding of how their operation works, and how it works in a particular place. Different locations pose different challenges.”
Ordering from a kitchen’s menu, rather than asking for customized meals, for example, will equate to lower food waste when a meeting wraps. “A lot of events do customization with their menus, and they don’t necessarily defer to their catering partner to look at best meal choices so they can more accurately plan portion sizes,” McKinley said. “Sometime ordering off the menu, and trusting the chef, is the best thing you can do. It allows them to be creative and flexible in what they bring to you.”
At the LEED Gold–certified Virginia Beach Convention Center (VBCC), sustainability coordinator Kimberlee Dobbins says that VBCC’s culinary partner, Distinctive Gourmet, is especially adept at reducing waste — if only planners rely on them. “We order in bulk, whenever possible, to reduce packaging,” Dobbins said. “We encourage water service rather than bottle service, and we encourage plated meals that produce a lot less waste than a buffet.” Most importantly, planners should be realistic about how many people will show up. “To help save money and waste, we go for accurate head counts,” Dobbins said. “That seems obvious, but sometimes people send out a ballpark [attendee count] and don’t think much about it.”
IMEX America aims to beat its own sustainability benchmarks year after year, and food waste is an integral part of that — achieved, Elliott said, by reducing local sourcing (not easy in a desert venue like Vegas) as well as proper planning, avoiding buffet service, and serving … vegetables? “We try to provide as many vegetarian options as possible,” Elliott said. “The reason why that’s important is that meat eaters can eat vegetarian meals, but vegetarians can’t eat meat. If a meat option runs out, they still have that vegetarian option.”
In fact, it was the vegetarian option that Oracle ran out of at an event two years ago. “Which tells you a little bit about how audiences are changing expectations,” Salinger said, “about what they want to eat.” He echoed other planners in emphasizing that food sustainability starts with where everything comes from — local sourcing cuts down on food miles — and what to serve. “We might choose chicken instead of beef,” Salinger said, “as [cows] are the largest emitter of carbon and greenhouse-gas emissions.”
COMPOSTABLE FOOD AND EDIBLE PLATES
Food scraps don’t have to head to the landfill, of course. Increasingly, hotels and convention centers have on-site composting programs that collect organic waste — not only food, but paper plates and towels, tea bags, and other paper products — to be hauled to state-regulated composting facilities. While composting might seem cumbersome, it can reduce overall waste-disposal costs and align a venue with the sustainability concerns of clients and attendees. And it can keep businesses in compliance, as states and municipalities increasingly mandate that organic waste be composted. Last October, for example, Massachusetts began requiring any food waste weighing more than a ton to be composted rather than thrown away, and provided extensive resources for businesses to set up hauling and processing programs. “That kind of regulation is hugely influential in stemming the tide [of waste],” McKinley said. “Overnight, it created a business case for doing this.”
Indeed, while the potential for fines can be a wake-up call for venues and other businesses, reducing waste from the outset can nip those costs in the bud. “Our goals are centered around diverting waste from the landfill. If we can’t donate it, or if our staff can’t eat it, then we compost it,” Dobbins said. “We have several containers where we put the food waste, and a compost hauler comes weekly to bring it to the closest EPA-approved facility.”
And while washable, reusable service ware obviously creates the least amount of waste, many events call for disposable plates, cups, and utensils. In San Francisco — which has a municipal composting and recycling program in place — all event producers are required to attend free zero-waste event training that touches on composting, holding a “water-bottle-free event,” tracking waste, and finding compostable service ware. An ever-expanding range of recyclable and compostable service ware is available, some of it with surprising added benefits. At a recent National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago, Biosphere Technology unveiled a line of service ware made from leftover food scraps. “Every single one of our products is edible,” said Mindy Agnew, the company’s director of business development — such as the cup that an ice cream might be served in. (“It tastes like a waffle cone.”)
While compostable and even edible service ware might push up costs at an event, Agnew sees it as part of the bigger picture. “We throw away almost 40 percent of what we buy,” she said. “In the overall holistic picture of sustainability and waste reduction, [compostable plates] are low-hanging fruit that offer a huge benefit to events and organizations that hope to reduce waste. Compostables kind of complete the cycle.”
SHARING THE BOUNTY
Composting is just one route that leftovers can take, but if the food never makes it out onto the floor in the first place — or goes unwrapped — it usually can be donated to local charities. During her work as a planner with the Canadian Medical Association, Wood became acquainted with La Tablée des Chefs, a Montreal-based organization that recovers food from the hospitality industry and distributes it to organizations that serve people in need. “Once you start looking at what these shelters are doing, it’s phenomenal,” Wood said. “I’m convinced that the waste from our industry could probably provide the majority of food going into those shelters.”
However, meeting professionals remain nervous about the potential liabilities of donating “food that has been discarded from events,” Wood said. After she gave a TED-style talk on the subject for MPI’s Ottawa Chapter in March, planners came up afterwards and told her, “Gee, I didn’t know it was legal to donate.” The reality is, in many states and provinces, people who donate food are protected by Good Samaritan laws. “The only way you can be sued is if you donated food that you knew has been contaminated,” Wood said. “That’s why the food-donation system works. It has rules.”
Indeed, almost everyone interviewed for this story makes it a regular practice to donate leftover food from their events. Unconsumed food from VBCC, for example, goes to The Potter’s House church in Virginia Beach, while IMEX America donates to Three Square, a Las Vegas–based nonprofit that works against food insecurity, and a few other pilot programs. Yet successful donation also requires pre-con conversations between a planning team and a venue, so staff can take measures to hold food back from the floor — even buffet-bound food — to keep it safe for possible donation. “Sometimes, you can hold some of that hot food back,” McKinley said, “and then it can be recovered.”
For food that isn’t composted or donated, there’s a less obvious but simple solution: Sometimes staff can eat or take it home. “It’s sort of a perk of our employment that we’ll give leftover food to our staff,” Dobbins said. “At least we know it’s not wasted.”
‘WE NEED TO PAY ATTENTION’
IMEX America commits itself to reducing waste year over year (as does Oracle), and publishes a post-event report each year. Between 2013 and 2014, for example, the show reduced event food waste by 20 percent. “We diligently keep track of the amount of food that is ordered versus the amount of food that is left over,” Elliott said, in part by weighing the event’s compost before it’s hauled away. “Tracking is really important.”
Yet while loading compost onto a scale might not be high on your post-event to-do list, McKinley points out that it can take a simpler form: Keeping your eyes and ears open. “Sometimes we just order [food] and when the event is done, we don’t necessarily go back to our numbers to see how many bagels are left,” she said. Yet such information can inform future meetings. “Pay attention to the kind of waste you’re generating on site,” McKinley said. “A lot of planners don’t necessarily see what kind of food is being pulled from a buffet. We need to pay attention.”
If you are making the effort (and spending the money) to reduce food waste at your event, let attendees know — so they can become stakeholders in the effort. “What IMEX does really well, and some other organizations do well, is the on-site communication with attendees,” Elliott said, “so they understand where their food waste is going.” IMEX America accomplishes this with digital signage. “Communication with attendees is really important,” Elliott said. “It’s a unique opportunity to influence people from all over the world during a three-day period.”
Salinger balked at the idea that spending more to reduce its carbon footprint runs against his company’s best interest. “There’s value for firms in terms of brand reputation,” Salinger said. “If you can tell a good story about what you’re doing to minimize waste, it creates operational efficiency. And if you’re super-diligent about your guarantees, there should be some cost savings, or at least neutral costs.
At the crux of it, though, is changing the hearts and minds of meeting professionals across the industry. “Our biggest worry with sustainability is this tone of going without, that you’re taking things away,” McKinley said. “[Reducing waste] really challenges us to be more creative. Before, we wanted and expected abundance. We’re becoming more conscious of where all that waste is going.”