5 Unique Ways to Make Your Meeting Menu More Sustainable

Switching to reusable plates and local vendors is not enough to satisfy the growing group of environmentally conscious attendees.

The buzz around sustainability in the events industry has taken off, led in part by the flight shaming movement. But transportation is just one of many factors that contribute to the environmental impact of an event.

According to MeetGreen, a sustainable conference management agency, the average conference attendee produces more than four pounds of waste per day. Menu modifications are a simple, but significant step planners can take towards sustainability. 

"Food brings people together, so it's a great place to start the sustainability conversation," said Jacqueline Tran, energy and sustainability manager of the Javits Center in New York City.

Ditching plastic plates and replacing meats with plant-based options are great first steps. But there are other, lesser-known actions meeting planners should also consider implementing at their events. According to Eric Wallinger, director of sustainability at MeetGreen, the time to go all in on sustainability is now.

"In the age of mega fires and climate accountability, having a more carbon-friendly food-and-beverage strategy is increasingly important. The connections between what we're doing, what we're consuming and how we're treating the earth are a lot more front and center than ever before," said Wallinger. "Events are kind of a window into a company's values and the menu is one of those central nexus points where a lot of different elements of events sustainability come together; it intersects with procurement, waste management and packaging." 

Below are five unique ways to cut waste out of your food-and-beverage program.

Measure the Meal Miles of Sponsors and Concessions

Most planners are well aware that when it comes to comes to putting together the meeting menu, it's best to look local. Sourcing vegetables, fruits and other food from nearby producers reduces the travel distance and carbon footprint of the meal. 

But according to Wallinger, it's important that event coordinators look beyond just the plated meals served to attendees. Upon closer inspection, one may find that the food-and-beverage options served by sponsors and at venue concession stands is not up to par in terms of sustainability. 

IMEX America, for example, previously offered Fiji and Evian bottled water at its concession stands. This meant the water traveled from the island of Fiji and the mountains of Switzerland all the way to the show floor in Las Vegas.

"Although we don't give participants bottled water at IMEX America, it is for sale at concession outlets," said Wallinger, who worked with the show to improve sustainability. "When we looked at it, the bottles from Fiji were traveling 5,000 miles and it's also 5,000 miles to Switzerland. We thought 'wow we're bringing in this water from across the globe.' So instead, we partnered with Arrowhead water from the San Bernardino mountains, which is about 200 miles away."

Use Imperfect Fruits and Vegetables

According to National Geographic, about a third of the world's food goes to waste and oftentimes it is because of how it looks. This includes imperfect fruits and vegetables that are cast aside due to their size, shape or color (think crooked carrots and misshaped peppers).

For event coordinators looking to improve their sustainability efforts, Wallinger suggests using imperfect foods and finding an improvisational chef who can turn them into creative dishes, or find other ways to make sure they don't go to waste.

"All items that are sourced and arrive at the Javits Center are utilized in one way or another," said Tran. "If produce is unsightly, it will be turned into a broth component or a puree." 

Rethink Packaging and Presentation

What's on the plate isn't all that matters, it's also important to consider how it the food is packaged and presented. This includes removing any plastic wrapping around sandwiches or other foods. Instead, Wallinger suggests setting up plastic-free grab-and-go stations.

"You can almost never do this enough," said Wallinger. "Even with the events that are really far down the line in terms of sustainability, every year we're looking at how we can cut more packaging out of the mix."

Take a Back-of-House Venue Tour

Sustainability is often easier said than done. To ensure the event venue is following through on its green goals, Wallinger recommends taking a back-of-house kitchen tour during the site inspection.

"Almost all venue people these days want to do the right thing with sustainability. There's no question; everyone's in agreement," said Wallinger. "It's just that it gets so busy and becomes such a grind. A back-of-house tour and auditing the venue to some degree can help improve accountability."

It's also a good idea to work with a venue on a "food rescue" or donation plan that covers where the food will be going, as well as how it will be transported and kept at the proper temperature. You'll want to figure out all the details ahead of time to ensure nothing gets wasted on the day-of. Some venues, such as the Javits Center, work directly with local food rescue organizations.

"The sourcing, preparing and planning of an event are important to managing food waste and conducting a meeting in a sustainable fashion," said Tran. "We employ food-rescue initiatives that capture excess food during and after an event, which are then donated to those in need. We also capture any waste which cannot be rescued, such as food scraps and coffee grounds, and add that into our organics compost stream."

Add a Gamification Aspect

Another way to boost your sustainability efforts and get attendees involved is to incorporate gamification. Wallinger suggests adding symbols or fun facts to the menu that signify how sustainable each option is. A meal that is organic, locally sourced, plant-based and from a woman-owned enterprise will stand out on the menu and may in turn, become a more popular choice among guests.

Meeting planners can also encourage attendees to participate in a "clean plate challenge," which aims to reduce food waste by asking that people only put as much food as they will finish on their plate. After the meal, attendees can share a photo of their "clean plate" on social and invite others to think more sustainably about their meals. Wallinger says the challenge has had great success at the IMEX Future Leaders Forum

"Every year we've done it, we've had above 90 percent completion of the challenge," said Wallinger. "Nearly every person has done it and I really feel like they love it. They love it even more than you could imagine them loving it. It's just really fun to gamify that."