How many of us have a childhood memory of being told not to leave the table until we’d eaten everything on our plate? I used to take food and stuff it in my jean pockets so it would look like I had finished. My poor mother on laundry day! Looking back I see that my actions as an eight-year-old reflect some important truths. First, I couldn’t eat all of what was on my plate. I had been served too much. Second, I didn’t like some of the items on my plate. Third, I had eaten some candies before dinner and wasn’t hungry. Last, but not least, the food was being wasted because I’d picked at it or stuffed it in my pocket.
Now, let’s fast forward to today and look at a typical dinner event. If you are seeing a lot of food waste at your event, there could be several contributing factors. First, perhaps you served too much food. Solution: go from four courses to three. Second, are you serving something that people don’t like? Solution: serve food the majority of people can identify with (not everyone eats pork belly or lobster for example). Third, did you serve attendees a big lunch or did you have lots of food at a pre-reception? Solution: serve light lunches if you are organizing a big dinner and maybe you don’t need much food at the reception (thus saving money as well as food). Last of all, address the issue of food waste with the venue and have a conversation about what happens to leftovers and whether they can be donated to those in need.
Food waste is an “inconvenient truth” in our industry, but we are starting to talk about it. Let’s take a look at what’s happening.
Unfortunately, there are no comprehensive food waste measurements statistics for the meetings industry. However, Value Chain Management International released a revised report in 2014 that states “food waste in Canada equates to an estimated $31 billion annually, of which eight per cent (about $2.5 billion) is the food service industry (hospitality and restaurant industry).” We often hear that between 30 per cent or more of all food produced is wasted. Whether you are an event planner, a caterer, or you work in the banquet kitchen, you see the waste and these estimates are probably no surprise to you.
So what can our industry do about it? Plenty!
Food waste is a complex issue and not easily resolved but we can make a difference. It starts with taking responsibility for the problem and doing our part to change it. Here are steps you can take to reduce, reuse and recycle food.
+ Keep a history on events to improve accuracy on 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 known by the majority
+ If you serve lunch, then dinner, keep lunch light.
+ Serve three courses instead of four at dinner (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. Some 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. For example, I’ve moved food from an on-site staff cafeteria to a refreshment break when it 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.
+ Ensure you have a food recovery program in place with your caterer/venue. If they do not have a program, then ask that they implement a program.
+ It is legal to donate food; provincial law protects the food donor. Food donation has been happening in Canada for decades and the same applies in the US. 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 strategy in place. I used a program called the Chef’s Table (www.tableedeschefs.org/en) in 2013 and 2014 when I worked on the annual meeting of the Canadian Medical Association. Sixty-five subscribing hotels donated 298,000 meals to the program in 2014 alone. There are more than 8,000 hotels in Canada. Imagine the possibilities! Check YouTube for videos that show how the program works.
+ Cities also run programs. For example, Second Harvest operates a food donation program in the Greater Toronto Area.
+ If an event planner doesn’t ask about a food waste strategy, bring the topic up.
+ Provide guidance on how to minimize food waste, especially if you see something that you know will generate significant waste.
+ If you see significant waste at the beginning of a conference, tell the event planner to help them make adjustments to their orders (if they can).
+ Hold food back in the kitchen, don’t replenish food stations if the event is coming to an end.
+ Collect metrics to get a better picture of what and how much is being wasted and offer creative menus that are designed to keep food waste to a minimum.
+ Embrace a food waste recovery management system (kitchen morale, pride and team spirit will go up!).
+ Less food being discarded into the landfill not only saves money but prepares your business for future regulatory changes (i.e. 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 (http://greenkeyglobal.com/news/la-tablee-des-chefs-green-key-global-reducing-food-waste-in-the-hotel-industry/).
+ Talk to venues that are already using a food waste program such as the Westin Calgary, the Westin Ottawa, Sheraton Centre Toronto or the Calgary Telus Convention Centre
+ Get metrics on how many meals are donated. This becomes part of your Corporate Social Responsibility activities. You can also report this to your client who may be seeking a CSR program anyway.
We are all part of the food waste problem. We can all be part of the solution. The benefits of mitigating food waste far outweigh the time costs of making the changes needed. It’s a good business practice and it’s the right thing to do.
– Sandra Wood, CMP was the 2015 Industry Innovator inductee to the M+IT Hall of Fame. She was selected for her work in ending food waste.