Even when wowing attendees, squandering food is not cool

We’ve all been there. A lunch buffet has just been served in the hotel meeting room, and now the first PowerPoint of the next session has flashed on-screen. You happen to glance over at the food setup and see all that food still sitting in those chafing dishes.

As Americans, we waste enough food annually to feed the planet’s malnourished several times over, according to The Rockefeller Foundation. The average American household spends an estimated $1,500 to $2,000 a year on food never eaten. Businesses, manufacturers and farms spend $74 billion creating and transporting food that ends up in landfills.

Tighten the Food Chain

Food waste as an issue is finally having its moment. Several high-profile chefs, led by Anthony Bourdain, participated in Wasted! The Story of Food Waste, a feature-length documentary that premiered at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. In the film, these chefs evangelize for head-to-tail dining—making delicious dishes from what most people consider food scraps. Pig’s ears and chicken feet are at one extreme, but there are also classic dishes such as French fish stew bouillabaisse, which traditionally enabled fishermen to feed their families on “junk fish” they couldn’t sell.

The movie also featured waste-reduction stories from all over the world, including a disposal program in South Korea that has reduced household food waste by 30 percent.

A Hospitality Test

American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) and World Wildlife Fund (WWF), with support from The Rockefeller Foundation, launched several pilot projects last year to test innovative strategies for reducing food waste in the hotel industry. Hilton Hotels & Resorts, Hyatt Hotels Corporation, InterContinental Hotels Group, Marriott International, Hershey Entertainment & Resorts, Sage Hospitality and Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, participated in the 12-week tests.

The results were promising. Overall, participating properties reduced food waste at least 10 percent. As with most green initiatives, there were cost savings, too—3 percent or more.

“We no longer have the luxury of time,” says Pete Pearson, director of food waste at WWF. “Because our food carries such a high environmental cost, avoiding waste is a win-win for both business and the planet. As these demonstration projects show, with increased hotel industry engagement, we know we can make a difference.”

AHLA has since released a toolkit to help hotels follow these same practices, but some are already ahead of the curve. MGM Resorts International, for instance, is partnering with Three Square Food Bank in southern Nevada to provide 800,000 unserved banquet meals from five MGM properties during the next two years. And the company has been introducing other food-waste reduction measures for years.

“We are often asked what Las Vegas hotels do with their leftover food,” said Brian Burton, president and CEO of Three Square, when the partnership was announced earlier this year. “I believe those in privileged positions have a moral obligation to lend a helping hand to help pull up those in need. This new development gives us another tool in our collective community arsenal against hunger.”

Planner Action Items

As meeting planners, how do you make sure enough food is ordered while minimizing waste? Chef, food blogger and TV personality Martin Lopez offers several tips.

Chefs are your best resource, so talk to them. They have a good idea how much food attendees will consume, based on your type of group. Order from a kitchen’s menu rather than ask for customized meals, to take advantage of the chef’s experience.

Banish buffets if you can. They are so much more wasteful than plated meals. If not, wait to refresh a station when it’s empty instead of 5 to 10 percent empty (which is often the case), and then refill it with less each time. “It is not a bad thing to run out of some food items on a buffet station,” Lopez says. “Full use is actually becoming the measure of success, and wasteful leftovers are considered a failure.”

Keep unserved food in the kitchen at a safe temperature. Then, excess can be donated. Most states now have Good Samaritan laws that protect donating organizations—check for your event.

Keep good records. Logging both attendance and consumption will pay off with that same group next time, as well as build your confidence when placing all future F&B orders. “The accuracy of your food and beverage guarantees will improve tenfold,” Lopez promises.

Be extra careful about first-time events. “They traditionally have far fewer attendees than optimistic organizers expect,” Lopez says.

Be stout of heart. Dare to order for fewer attendees than your actual registration number. Not everyone will show up, and not everyone will eat heartily. “Most chefs will prepare 5 percent over your guaranteed number for each food item to be served,” Lopez says. “Discuss a backup plan, allowing food items the kitchen keeps in stock to be pulled and prepared quickly if attendance exceeds expectations.”