How to Be More Eco-Conscious About Conference Catering

3 questions to ask your caterer to potentially improve how green your meeting can be.

As a famous frog once said, “It isn’t easy being green.” And while that still may be true for Kermit, it is actually increasingly easy to make your conferences more environmentally sustainable.

Which is good news because millennials—who are and will continue to be an increasing percentage of meeting attendees—care more than previous generations about the sustainable practices of the organizations they deal with.

Generally speaking, millennials are particularly interested in having local, sustainable food choices, and they will appreciate any efforts you can make on this front at your conferences.

So, if you aren’t doing so already, have a chat with your next event caterer to find out how sustainably it operates. Here are three questions to ask to get the conversation started.

Where is the food coming from?

Food that is grown or raised not far from where you are eating it will leave a much smaller carbon footprint due to reduced travel. And when fruits and veggies don’t have far to travel, they can ripen in the fields longer, producing better tasting food.

SAVOR…Chicago, the caterer for McCormick Place has taken local produce to highest level—literally. With the help of the Chicago Botanic Garden, it maintains a 2.5-acre rooftop garden from which it harvests 8,000 pounds of produce every year—including hops from which it makes the McCormick Place Everyday Ale.

Why did McCormick Place start the rooftop garden? “Just to have good local food,” said Kevin Jezewski, assistant director of food and beverage for SAVOR…Chicago. “Growing a rooftop garden is difficult, but we want to give people good food that means something.”

SAVOR…Chicago also tries to be as local as possible in sourcing other food items. Therefore, the caterer can offer Green Meeting packages, which showcase organic, locally grown, environmentally preferred, and antibiotic-free food items—along with a healthy amount of vegetarian and vegan options. In fact, 33 percent of all food purchased at McCormick Place is local, organic, or environmentally preferred and 80 percent of all seafood is sustainable.

What other sustainable practices are being employed?

Sourcing seasonal and local produce is key, but that’s not the end of the sustainability conversation.

Blue Plate Catering, Chicago’s first green-certified caterer, takes the environment into account with all of its operations. “Being a green caterer applies to how we operate our 80,000 square foot facility, our purchasing practices, and what we do on-site,” said Missy Wright-Scroggins, sales director at Blue Plate Catering.

The company, which operates in over 80 venues across the city, collects leftover food for composting and recycles everything it can. In fact, the company has calculated that it composts 27 tons of food waste a year, producing fertilizers for city parks.

“Of all the things that are in our kitchen, only four go into the waste stream: plastic wrap, tape, gloves, and aluminum foil—those are the only things that are thrown away,” Wright-Scoggins said. “Everything else is recyclable and compostable.”

Are there restrictions on menu options?

Any green caterer is going to strive to serve seasonal, local produce. But in colder climates, winter won’t allow for much fresh from the local fields. Being green in this context is about making the most environmentally conscious choices, as opposed to imposing restrictions, according to Wright-Scoggins.

“People think it means that in the winter you have to eat parsnips, that it wholly dictates what the menu is, but that’s not true,” Wright-Scoggins said.

Wright-Scoggins also finds that some customers think a green caterer won’t produce meals as refined as they might want. “Some people think that the food will be really rustic in its style,” she said. “But that doesn’t have to be the case. We can do world cuisine with very modern presentations.”

By simply having a conversation with your next caterer about sustainable practices, you might find that your caterer is already employing some—and could be open to doing more for your event.

(Handout photo)