Steps to end food waste in the event industry

All of us working in this wonderful industry know there’s an inconvenient truth – food waste. We all dislike it, yet feel powerless to stop it.

According to a updated study released in 2014 by Value Chain Management International, food waste in Canada equates to an estimated $31 billion annually, of which eight per cent (about $2.5 billion) is attributed to the “food service” industry (hospitality and restaurant industry). When I read the report, I was not surprised because I’ve seen so much food waste in the 20 years I’ve been an event planner, and every colleague I’ve spoken to also acknowledges the problem and dislikes what they see.
Steps to end food waste in the event industry
So what can our industry do about it? Plenty!

Food waste is a complex issue and happens at every level from the farm to the banquet kitchen. In order to truly address food waste in the event industry, we must all take responsibility for the problem and be willing to do our part to change it.

Attention event planners

It is not illegal to donate food. Provincial law protects the food donor. This is the most common reason event planners are given when they ask about food donation, yet it is a myth. Food donation has been happening in Canada for decades. If you are doing business in the U.S., they also have a law that protects the food donor.

If a venue does not wish to donate food, it is because they do not want to take the risk because they likely do not have a food waste recovery management system in place. But programs exist, and I used a program during the past two years while working on the annual meeting of the Canadian Medical Association. The program is called the Chef’s Table. Founded in 2002, this not-for-profit organization is responsible for managing the distribution of unconsumed food (event leftovers) with 298,000 meals being donated by 65 subscribing hotels across Canada in 2014 alone. (There are over 8,000 hotels in Canada – imagine the possibilities!) Here are two great videos that illustrate how the program works and why it is needed. (Westin Calgary is a subscriber to the program.)

Before food donation occurs, event planners should also take steps to reduce the waste in the first place:

  • Keep a history on events to improve accuracy on your guarantees.
  • Sell tickets to meal events rather than package pricing. This helps eliminate some of the guesswork in how many will show up.
  • Know your event demographic – don’t order food that isn’t likely to be consumed by the majority or isn’t well known (i.e. unusual meals like pork belly, venison to name a few).
  • Reduce the number of courses. (Go from four to three courses – saves money too!)
  • Avoid buffets when you can; they are terribly wasteful. Speak with the hotel and discuss how you can hold food back in the kitchen. (Don’t have them refresh the food stations if your event is winding down.)
  • Order food that doesn’t easily spoil (whole fruit instead of cut fruit).
  • Re-evaluate dessert (about 60 per cent of desserts get wasted).
  • Seek the advice of your banquet chef who is an expert on estimating quantities. Try not to over order out of fear of running out.
  • Reuse food you order. (I’ve moved food from an on-site staff cafeteria to a refreshment break as food wasn’t moving well in the staff cafeteria.) Monitor how your food is moving and adjust accordingly.
  • If you know your event attendance will be low and you’ve already guaranteed the food, tell the hotel anyway so they don’t prepare and serve all that extra food. At least have them recover it and ready it for donation.

Attention venues

  • Embrace a food waste recovery management system, and then observe kitchen morale, pride and team spirit go up.
  • Less food being discarded into landfill saves money and prepares you for future regulatory changes. (For example, by 2021, no more organic waste will be allowed into landfills in the province of Quebec.)
  • Enhance your compliance with Green Key and increase client and associates’ satisfaction
  • Good corporate social responsibility is good business practice too.
  • Talk to venues who are already using the food waste program such as the Westin Calgary, the Westin Ottawa, Sheraton Toronto or the Telus Convention Centre in Calgary.
  • Get metrics of how many meals are being donated. This becomes part of your Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities, and you can also report this to your client who may be seeking a CSR program anyway.
Staff at Westin Ottawa preparing food for donation

Staff at Westin Ottawa preparing food for donation – Aug. 2014

There are solutions that can end food waste in the event industry, and they are at our fingertips. It means we must all do our part, but the benefits far outweigh the cost of time to make the changes necessary. It’s good business practice, and it’s the right thing to do.

About the author:

Sandra Wood, CMP is an award-winning, innovative certified meeting professional (CMP). She has more than 20 years planning, organizing, and delivering a wide variety of organizational and industrial meeting and events across Canada that address complex issues and are attended by such stakeholders as medical and educational professionals, public advocacy representatives, government officials, and political leadership. She is a public speaker, writer and workshop presenter on event sustainability and food waste recovery management and has taught at Algonquin College (Ottawa) on these topics. A proud member of PCMA and GMIC and an Ambassador for La Tablée des Chefs, Sandra believes that conferences and events are wonderful engagement opportunities that can easily be enhanced through better meeting practices which include excellent program design and evaluation, effective use of event technologies and hybrid technologies plus good corporate social responsibility that embraces event sustainability and food waste recovery. Sandra knows that event planners and suppliers are busy people and is pleased to be sharing her experience and expertise with her colleagues through Corporate Meetings Network.

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