Overflowing self-serve buffets are likely going to be one of the victims of Covid-19, and that’s fine with me. Who wants to touch serving utensils and eat food that has potentially been contaminated by someone else (never mind this has always been the case)? Conversely, no one wants buffets where everything from fresh fruit to hot foods are encased in protective plastic. The virus-induced events reset is an opportunity to be smarter about not only cleanliness, but food waste. A good place to start is eschewing the buffet.
As an event planner, I see an obscene amount of perfectly good buffet food dumped into the trash each year. Cakes with one slice removed, full chafing pans of vegetables or chicken breasts prepared as “back up” quantities, and mounds of freshly-baked yeast rolls routinely get thrown away. According to the USDA, Americans waste 40% of our country’s annual food supply. Food waste, and often the accompanying single-use plastic it is served with (150 million tons annually) are the number one component of landfills.
I understand and appreciate the artistry of the visual feast of beautifully displayed foods that have become standard for meetings, conferences, and special events. We use food as both bait to get people to attend, and décor to make events beautiful and prestigious. Buffets include a wide variety of offerings, piled high to convey success and abundance. They are lovely to behold. The same applies to all-you-can-eat restaurant buffets and produce aisles in supermarkets. Americans have been conditioned to the look of bountiful excess. When it’s missing, right-sized food offerings can seem less prestigious, stingy, and “second class.” It is time to change this perception.
Our recent obsession to accommodate ever-increasing dietary preferences exacerbates the problem. We now provide a multitude of choices on the chance that we might offend someone by not being able to meet their specific desires. Even break services that once constituted coffee, tea, sweeteners, and cream have morphed into mini-buffets. While one form of creamer was once standard, we now provide oat milk, soy milk, low-fat, no-fat, real cream, almond milk and little tubs of flavored chemical concoctions called, “French Vanilla,” “Irish Cream,” or “Mocha.” Accompaniments have blossomed from simple pastries to yogurt and fruit parfaits, fresh fruit, breakfast breads, muffins, and bagels with their requisite toppings. We throw most of it out.
As we begin the fall planning cycle, there are many unknowns (will we be allowed to hold large events, will social distancing still be required, even if the danger has subsided, will people be ready to reengage?) but as planners, our duty is to be ready with options. I intend to begin by ditching the buffet, no small task because this has ramifications for everything from budget to staffing to venue.
Our fall semester has traditionally begun with the President’s Picnic, an outdoor event for the entire student body that includes food, bands, and fireworks. We serve from 14, double-sided buffet lines set up under a giant tent. Students eat seated closely together Octoberfest style at tables on the campus greenway. Replacing this will be a challenge. Perhaps this year we will keep the entertainment, but dispense with the picnic. We could feed students in the dining halls. Perhaps we won’t do it at all.
Here are some alternatives to buffets that are double wins because they reduce both food waste and the chance for contamination:
Cafeteria service. People select from a number of choices (though fewer than on a buffet). Food is served by an employee who controls portion size.
Food stations. Options are available from a group of scattered food stations. Serving is done by an employee.
Boxed lunches. Offer a few choices of main item, add “sides” that are universal. Boxes are packed in advance by employees. Be sure to use environmentally friendly packaging to avoid increasing plastic waste. Go an extra step toward reducing waste by polling guests in advance so you have a close approximation of how many of each choice is needed.
Plated meals. Food is served to seated guests by an employee.
Adjourning for “lunch on your own.” Provide attendees with vouchers to eat at existing campus food outlets.
Adjusting event agendas or start times to avoid lunch or dinner hours.
Determining at the outset if it is really necessary to provide a meal.