It’s Up to You to Stop Food Waste At Conferences


By Robert McGarvey

Nobody knows how much food is wasted at business meetings, conferences and conventions. The fast answer is a lot.  Tons and tons. Some experts guess that at least half the food at a typical conference is wasted and that means tossed out and headed to the landfill.  That’s all the sadder when the estimate is that one in eight American struggles to put adequate food on the table.  

The good news is that there now are first, tentative steps to address  food waste at conferences in particular.  That is good. There also are steps you can personally take. That is better.

But first understand the enormity of the hunger problem,. Eight million Baby Boomers are hungry right now.  On any day, maybe 50 million of us are hungry.  

How much food – really – could be harvested at a conference?  One three day conference at the Rio in Las Vegas recently produced 7135 pounds of rescued food.  That’s three and one-half tons. From just one conference. Hotel Management reported that the food “varied from hot plates of chicken and beef to salads, cheeses, bread rolls and vegetables.”

What’s exciting is that Caesars Entertainment, which operates the Rio, has said it will roll out the food rescue program to its other Las Vegas properties (which include Caesars Palace, Harrah’s, Paris Las Vegas and more) during 2017.

Caesars is not alone.  Loews Hotels also has an initiative.  

In New York, City Harvest itemizes these hotels as donors:  St. Regis Hotel | Crowne Plaza Manhattan | The New Yorker Hotel | Hotel Gansevoort | Millennium Broadway Hotel | New York Marriott East Side | Intercontinental Hotel New York Barclay | Hilton New York & Tower | Intercontinental Hotel | Roosevelt Hotel | Marriot Marquis.  In at least some cases, this may involve surplus food from meetings

But here’s the blunt reality: most meetings venues do not have a program to rescue food.

Meetings have to be a prime target because as any meeting attendee knows most venues pride themselves on always presenting full tables groaning with a bounty of morning bagels and rolls, at lunch even empty places get full plates, and at snacks there are more cookies than anyone should want.

All that is food that may well be discarded.

But much of it can be reclaimed.

There are rules about this. City Harvest, for instance, told me that it will not pick up food that has been plated and put on a table.  

That makes sense and so City Harvest suggests that caterers put out less food – leaving more food in the category that City Harvest will in fact pick up.

Know that this food is generally high quality. A recent conference at Harvard Law – on food rescue – served some 1000 meals to attendees where most of the grub was rescued.  

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, many hundreds of plates of salvaged food were served – with no grumbles.

There are steps you can personally take.  For instance, if you know you won’t be eating the lunch, tell the organizer and ask that the food be donated to a local food bank.

While you are doing that, ask more broadly how the venue handles food surplus – and point out that in most meetings towns there are busy food banks that will happily pick up the extras.

Ask pointed questions. What happens to the bagels and strawberries that don’t get eaten in the morning?  What happens to the many dozens of plated lunches that never get put on tables?  

All this is food that can fill hungry bellies.

The venue says it doesn’t know how to safely recycle its unwanted food? Here’s a city by city guide to organizations that get the job done.

Note: this movement already is lot bigger than you might think. In Phoenix, for instance, Waste Not collects some 6000 pounds of unwanted food at events daily – and that fills thousands of bellies.

Incidentally, in Arizona – and many other states – there’s a Good Samaritan law (passed in 1989) that offers protections against litigation to donors of perishables.  That’s important to know. Some would-be donors say fear of suits stifles their impulse to give but very probably the fears are unfounded.

It really comes down to us: if we pressure venues to rescue and recycle surplus food at meetings most will find a way.  

And that is a big step towards ending hunger, especially in big meetings towns such as Las Vegas and Orlando.  


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