As a food waste-focused organization, the catering at our events is important, not only because it brings us together and facilitates meaningful connection, but because we want to “walk the walk” of food waste reduction by changing the narrative about abundance and innovating new models for reducing food waste at events. Similar to an all-you-can-eat buffet or the produce bins at your local grocery store, human experience has conditioned us to expect full serving trays and platters of food when we go through the standard conference lunch buffet – but like the buffet and produce bins, these can lead to waste.
So what can we do about it? At the 2022 Food Waste Solutions Summit, we were privileged to work alongside D’Amico Catering, a creative and mission-driven team that was willing to challenge the status quo and implement new strategies to reduce waste. Here’s what we did with them:
- Rethinking Catering Overages: The industry standard for calculating quantities of servings for an event is to go 3-5% over the attendee guarantee. This is a conservative approach to ensure that everyone who attends has access to all of the meal options served. As early as our registration process, we asked attendees to inform us of any meals they knew they would miss due to their arrival or departure times or other plans on-site. We also made assumptions that many attendees wouldn’t attend early breakfasts, for example. This led to us calculating servings anywhere from 15%-60% below the attendee count, depending on the meal being served.
- Designing for Full Product Utilization: In planning our event meals, we started from scratch, designing both the dishes themselves, as well as the order in which they were served, to allow for entire ingredients to be used. For example, beet leaves from a roasted beet tartare were used in pesto the following day, the entire broccoli was used in the broccoli salad at lunch, and fruit trimmings from breakfasts were used in smoothies served during afternoon breaks. We also served upcycled products – such as Seconds crackers – throughout the duration of the event, and the Upcycled Food Association hosted an exhibit showcasing a wide range of upcycled food and beverages.
- Preparing a Plan B: Predictably, with all of our planning, there was still food that wasn’t eaten. Working alongside our venue and catering partners, we had several plans in place. First, leftover items from previous meals were offered again later in the Summit - for example, cucumber smoothie “shots” (non-alcoholic) from our Happy Hour were offered again during lunch the next day. We also had a partnership with Second Harvest Heartland to immediately donate edible food to local food banks, as well as on-site composting facilities for what was left over.
In all of these examples, building a strong relationship with the catering team was essential to our success. That partnership and the innovative strategies it allowed led to some exciting food waste reduction results - the total food waste for the three-day event was just under 30 pounds, which is 95% less waste than for a comparable event. This focus on food waste reduction, alongside other sustainability practices put in place, led to the Summit receiving MeetGreen’s highest sustainability rating for an event, categorized by leadership within the industry, innovative research and performance, and influencing change with venues and vendors. (See below for our report card.)
Even ReFED still has room for improvement – there was avoidable waste among the 30 pounds at the end of the event, and there were some dishes we ran out of too early, but we are excited to be changing the narrative around what is possible and what is acceptable in event settings. Join us in 2023 as we continue to make food the center of our events and learn together better ways to go about “business as usual.”