Every year, $165 billion of food is wasted in the United States while, at the same time, many families go hungry. Two event-industry experts, Courtney Lohmann, CMP, senior director of corporate and social responsibility for PRA Business Events, and Mariela McIlwraith, CMP, CMM, president of sustainability for Meeting Change, understand the many ways to minimize food waste, focusing on two strategies: reducing the amount of food that is unused at an event and repurposing most of that unused food in a planet-friendly way.
First, Lohmann advises planners to focus on three areas of the food-waste continuum: Reduce supply-chain food waste, repurpose or donate food leftovers, and compost food waste.
To begin setting up your food-rescue plan, Lohmann suggests talking to all the stakeholders in the process, from your vendors to your attendees. She says it is important to communicate with everyone so that your attendees understand your goals and suppliers will not be concerned that limited menu choices or fewer preset meals could reflect poorly on them.
Reducing Food Waste
Planners should talk to the venue and caterer about specific goals, but also be flexible when they make suggestions.
When serving attendees, focus on quality rather than quantity. In practical terms, this may mean fewer options but a high standard of food on the buffet. Reducing the number of items that need to be prepared will save money that can be spent on higher-quality proteins and fresher vegetables, and will reduce the amount of leftovers.
Rethink the menu. The kitchen may have suggestions for a sustainable menu that you could implement for one or two meals that are either meatless or based around locally grown items. This doesn’t mean that you can’t give your guests what they want, says Lohmann. She found out that a caterer in Vancouver gets so many requests for sushi that it has actually started a side business making dog treats out of fish skins, reducing the amount of waste that goes into landfills
Review your food guarantees. Lohmann says that if you have an event for 200 people over two days, share expectations for late arrivals and early departures with your caterers. Talk to your hotel, venue, and suppliers ahead of time about your intention to reduce food waste. You may find they already have systems in place to help you.
From there, McIlwraith points out that carefully choosing menu options can not only cut down on food waste, but protect other resources, too. She explained, “One kilogram of beef takes about 1,400 gallons of water to produce, chicken uses 300 gallons fewer than that, and vegetarian options even less. Coffee production has a higher water footprint than tea, and fruit for juice production uses a lot of water. A single glass of orange juice can require nearly 66 gallons of water to produce.
Tricks of the Trade
Lohmann suggests that if you need to have preset food on tables, then only preset 80 percent of the tables since there are typically no-shows and any stragglers entering an event late can be served separately. She also suggests using smaller plates so that your attendees will serve themselves appropriate food portions. A study by Nordic Choice Hotels found that it could reduce plate sizes and therefore food waste, and it had no impact on guest satisfaction.
Food rescue, recovery, or salvage, is the practice of saving food that would otherwise go to waste from restaurants, grocery stores, and produce markets, and distributing it to local emergency food programs, shelters, and food pantries. Lohmann advises starting the process of implementing a food rescue plan at the very beginning of your event planning, even including questions on your RFP. It is also important to designate a food point person to address all food-related questions, from identifying food that can be donated (versus reused for your group) and handling logistics for the donation.
Very often the hotel or venue will be able to connect you with a food donation partner, such as a local shelter or food pantry. If not, Feeding America can advise you on an appropriate organization.
Topics that planners need to address with all partners include:
• What types of food is your donation partner interested in? Some shelters can take unused picnic sandwiches, but food pantries may not be able to take prepared foods, but can take fruit and vegetables.
• How will the food be stored? Some organizations have their own storage containers. At other times, you may have to invest in containers to store the food.
• Can the hotel or venue refrigerate/store the food until pickup?
• Do you need to label containers so that expensive mistakes at pickup don’t occur and the wrong food is taken?
• Do you need to arrange transport for the food, or can the donation partner arrange to pick it up? Do you need to find volunteers to take the food to the pickup point?
Food Rescue Legal Questions
The biggest questions concerning food rescue, McIlwraith says, are related to legal liability rather than logistics. “In the U.S., the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act was passed in 1996 to protect people who donate food. In Canada, the regulations vary by province, and other countries have different protections.” However, it is important to note that there has been a shift in legislation around the world to prioritize food donation—the U.S. recently strengthened its law, while grocery stores in France and Italy can be fined for not donating food.
However, to be protected under the Good Samaritan Act, you still need to observe all proper food-handling safety norms. McIlwraith gives the example of Thai Harvest SOS, an organization in Thailand that has an on-site food hygienist to ensure proper food handling from the point of collection to the point of distribution.
Both McIlwraith and Lohmann agree that although the process may appear to consume precious time and resources, the effort is minimal when compared to potential savings and reputational goodwill. McIlwraith said, “People are very conscious of whether or not food is being donated at an event, and if they see food being wasted, there is a reputation risk for the organization.” Lohmann reassures planners that “Aasuccessful food rescue involves a few steps, but they all flow together well and once you’ve done it, it is simple to do in the future.”
Making a Meal of It: Metrics
Food rescue can be measured in pounds of food donated, but there is also a less tangible but still important positive impact on the community where the event was held.
Another way of measuring the impact of a food rescue program is to look at future savings by making more efficient food choices. Lohmann gives the example of an event in Hawaii where she incorporated her first food rescue program. It was an event for 650 attendees on the island of Oahu, and the hotel helped her identify two organizations who could benefit from leftovers from the daily breakfast buffet. Over five mornings the group was able to donate enough food to serve breakfast to 300 people in need. Lohmann was happy that the organization was able to make a difference in the community, but she said she stood in the kitchen looking at the food to be donated and realized her group really didn’t eat a lot of croissants, so next time she will be able to mitigate food waste by cutting down on breakfast pastries. She said, “It’s nice to know how many pounds of food we donated and also to be able to make a positive impact on planning future events.”