Fighting Food Waste at Meetings

One third of the food produced worldwide is wasted. Event planners can help cut that number.

Illustration by VectorMine for Adobe Stock
Illustration by VectorMine for Adobe Stock

How we use — and misuse — food is a disturbing paradox. After steadily declining for a decade, world hunger is on the rise, affecting nearly 10 percent of people, according to Action Against Hunger, a nonprofit devoted to resolving food insecurity. That’s 828 million people across the globe.

Among other stats from AAH and other sources: 

  • One-third of the food produced worldwide is wasted. In the United States, the amount is roughly 40 percent. 
  • Women and children are disproportionately affected: 45 percent of child mortality worldwide is a result of hunger and related causes.
  • From 2019 to 2022, the number of undernourished people grew by as many as 150 million, a crisis driven largely by conflict, climate change and the global pandemic.

The meetings industry is part of the problem. As a planner and consultant on food safety, sustainability and inclusion, I see that same paradox played out at almost every event I attend. A bounty of food is served to attendees, and a disturbing amount of it ends up in the trash. 

The meetings industry spends $64.3 billion annually on F&B, estimates Lodging Econometrics. If the amount of waste is in sync with the U.S. average of 40 percent, that’s $25.7 billion lost. 

We need to rethink what and how we provide F&B at events. As an industry, we can reduce our carbon footprint in many ways — cutting water and energy use, making better transportation choices, buying carbon offsets, using fewer plastics — and through F&B. Many of us don’t realize that food-and-beverage production is among the most significant contributors to global warming. 

Agriculture is particularly hard on the environment, emitting more greenhouse gases than all of our cars, trucks, trains and airplanes combined, according to a recent report by National Geographic. Culprits include methane released by cattle and rice farms, nitrous oxide from fertilized fields, and carbon dioxide, as forests are cut down to grow crops or raise livestock. 

What is food waste? 

Food waste is defined as discarded or lost uneaten food that is still safe and nutritious for human consumption. The following are common sources of food waste at events:

  • Uneaten preset desserts or salads on banquet tables; 
  • Extra appetizers or meals that are prepared but not served; 
  • Platters of breads, pastries and fruit left on the buffet table after breakfast has ended;
  • Chafing dishes pulled from the buffet when they’re two-thirds empty; 
  • Boxed lunches not picked up; and
  • Special meals requested on demand, leaving extras of prepared menu items.

How planners are guilty

Meeting planners tend to accept food waste as inevitable, says Aurora Dawn Benton, who is working with the World Wildlife Fund and the Pacific Coast Collaborative to resolve this problem in hospitality. That’s a common sentiment that meeting professionals express in focus groups, says Benton. 

Suppliers, for their part, say planners “get super freaked out about running out of food, and they want to ensure that every pan is full until the last minute of service.”

An outcome of the research is a list of items Benton and her colleagues are labeling “prolifically problematic.” The 10 most wasted items are bread, bagels, pastries, desserts, cookies, salad dressings and salad toppings, condiments, coffee and creamer, cheese, and charcuterie boards. 

It takes minimal effort to reduce food waste. I’d like to think my colleagues will feel morally obligated to take action, but if that’s not convincing enough, minimizing waste also saves a lot of money. Here’s how:

9 easy ways to cut food waste 

  1. Monitor buffets and plated meals, and ask the banquet team to track what is not eaten. For your next event, don’t order those items; repeat the same process with a new list of what’s wasted. 
  2. Do not order a bagel for every attendee. Not everyone wants a bagel or can eat a bagel. Diversify the menu and partner with your catering team to identify the items they serve that fit your demographics — ones that rarely come back to the kitchen.
  3. Monitor event registration lists and hotel arrivals and departures. There’s no need to order food for 1,000 people at the opening reception when pick-up reports show that 50 percent of attendees aren’t checking in until the next day or 50 percent will be leaving before the closing reception. 
  4. Ask attendees in advance which food functions they plan to attend. If your meal functions aren’t mandatory, some attendees will go out to eat. 
  5. Consider the food options around your event venue. One of my clients took their event from a Las Vegas Strip property to one in Orlando that wasn’t within walking distance of any restaurants. Meal attendance and F&B consumption increased by 25 percent in Orlando. The reverse happened when they went back to Las Vegas. 
  6. Ask attendees about their dietary needs in the registration process — and follow-up. Last year I saved nine meals from going to waste and my client $2,500 by talking with the three attendees who asked for kosher meals. I ordered food from the kosher caterer for one who is an Orthodox Jew. The other two said they’d be satisfied if buffets items were labeled for beef, dairy, pork, shellfish and wheat so they could self-select foods that met their dietary needs. 
  7. Incorporate dietary needs and preferences into your overall menu plan to the extent possible. If a large percentage of attendees are gluten-free, for example, make the menu gluten-free. 
  8. Have a plan in place to rescue and donate any leftover food. Reducing waste on the front end is key, but when there is excess, do not let it go to waste. Partner with Food Rescue U.S. or a local food-rescue company that will collect the leftovers from your event and give them to community residents who need them. The federal government recently made it even easier for food to be donated without liability.
  9. Work with properties that are committed to reducing food waste. On a recent episode of my Eating at a Meeting podcast, I talked with Simon McMahon, director of operations for Wyboston Lakes Resort in Wyboston, England. The hotel has become a zero-food-waste property by inviting employees to take home prepared but unserved meals, and composting additional leftovers to fertilize the trees planted each time a guest decides not to have their room cleaned. 

Collectively, planners and suppliers need to change what and how we feed our participants. Improving our practices, shifting our consumption patterns and reducing waste offers a perfect opportunity to do something positive for our planet and the people on it. 

Tracy Stuckrath, president and chief connecting officer for Thrive! Meetings and Events, works with organizations to help them understand how food and beverage affects risk, employee well-being, company culture and the bottom line.