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It’s Time to Ditch Buffets

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.

For more information about reducing food waste go to http://epa.gov  and http://rts.com.

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Plan To Reduce Special Event Waste

New years in academia comes in August and one of my resolutions is to make this year’s events as eco-friendly as possible. As the planning cycle starts, now is the time to work on this. Fall begins with a series of outdoor picnics and tailgating that are by their nature, messy and wasteful, generating a mountain of one-use plastic cups, plates, cutlery, table covers, and bottles. Why? Because it’s convenient. Planning not to make so much waste requires extra effort and involves negotiating with vendors and seeking out alternatives. Wasteful packaging has become our default to the point that we’ve forgotten the ways we used to do things before the world was filled with single-serving containers, polystyrene and Styrofoam “take out” boxes and bottled water. Being environmentally aware and doing our part as events planners to stop waste is no longer just “nice,” it is imperative. The collapse of the plastic bottle recycling market and the intense media coverage this year of the billions of pounds of plastic we are stacking up on land and tossing into our oceans highlight that the effort to control event waste is essential. Here are some ways to get started:

Understand your waste and plan how to avoid it. What will you be generating? One of our first fall events is a picnic for 1,600 students. I didn’t appreciate the impact of my choice to use plastic covers on 200 tables until last year when I saw the post-event giant ball of them headed for the landfill.  This year we are using paper covers held in place with reusable tablecloth clips!

Cutting down waste begins with planning not to create it in the first place. Plan menus that don’t require plastic cutlery and put condiments like ketchup and mustard in large pump dispensers instead of single serving plastic packets. If you do have to use cutlery, choose biodegradable bamboo. Avoid the ubiquitous plastic bagged napkin, knife, fork, spoon, salt and pepper. Often, only one of these items is used and the entire packet gets tossed in the trash. Cheap and readily available, I’ve seen caterers discard cases of these rather than load them for a return to their headquarters. You’ll no doubt get push-back from your food service provider or caterer, but strive for ways to offer unwrapped cutlery so people can choose only what they need.  Ban beverages in plastic bottles completely. Instead, offer drinks in aluminum cans or in paper cups filled from dispensers. Encourage people to bring their own bottles that can be filled at water stations but don’t make your own event-specific water bottles.  Everyone already has cupboards full of reusable bottles and making new ones is just generating more plastic! There is a strong market for aluminum recycling so canned beverages are an eco-friendly option. Water (and even wine) is now available in cans. Canned water comes in still, carbonated, and mineral options and with a little advanced planning, it’s possible to get it branded with your school logo.

Require vendors (including on campus food service) to honor your commitment to recyclables. Until everyone gets used to the idea, you’ll have to reinforce your commitment over and over again. Changes will need to be incorporated into the supply ordering process so start early.

Avoid the following because they cannot be recycled: Items that come in wrappers such as candy, condiments, and chips (serve chips in baskets with tongs); polystyrene/Styrofoam plates, cups, bowls, clam shell containers,  and “to go boxes;” plastic cutlery, bags, straws, stir sticks, and lids. Food-soiled boxes (like pizza boxes) and used plates.

Know what is accepted by your local recycler.  Find out what your campus recycling capabilities are and determine how to use them effectively. You may have to contract with an outside vendor.

Make it easy with good collection containers and clear signs. Put clean, nice-looking containers in high-traffic, high-visibility, convenient locations. Avoid dirty containers and those with lids because people don’t want to touch them. Clearly list the items that go in each container so people don’t have to try to figure it out.  Instead of saying “#1 plastic,” make it simple with “plastic bottles, aluminum cans, paper,” “food, used plates, and cutlery.” Since you’ve already selected products that can be recycled, there is no need to confuse people with too much information. Signs should be at eye-level. Always put a trash can beside a recycle bin to help people separate recyclables from trash in one stop.

Create a “Green Team.” Organize volunteers to tend recycling containers, answer questions, and empty as needed. This helps prevent people from dumping everything in the trash.

Make indoor functions green, too. Use china instead of disposable cups and plates, linen instead of throw-away table covers. Skip plastic straws and stir sticks. If you must offer straws, search “paper straws” online and you will find many vendors. You can even get the straws logoed. Don’t use plastic encased name badges or the now conference-standard name badges in giant plastic holders that dangle from lanyards. Most of these short-lived items wind up in the landfill and no one uses those “souvenir” lanyards after your event, meeting, or conference is done. (We’ve returned to logoed, paper stick-on badges with no complaints.) Don’t print programs, tickets, brochures, maps, agendas and the like. Instead, provide free Wi-Fi and either create a meeting app for this information, or post it on your web site. Skip purchasing ad specialty items that wind up in people’s junk drawers and eventually in the landfill. Forget ordering Polypropylene tote bags that are often given to attendees (with good intentions) to be reusable as grocery bags. A thermoplastic, about 5 billion pounds of Polypropylene are produced in the U.S. annually, yet less than 1 percent is recycled. The rest winds up in landfills where it takes 20-30 years to decompose.

Make your efforts known. Publicize the fact that you are striving to reduce waste and enlist people to help in the cause. Use the power of your higher-ed pulpit to teach students about environmental awareness and recycling by modeling these practices on campus. It’s an easy and important way to instill these habits in the next generation.

 

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Catering to Dietary Requests

A recent “Special Events Magazine” survey of caterers revealed that special dietary requests from guests attending meetings and events now constitute 20 percent of an audience, up from five percent 10 years ago.

While requests for special meals due to religious or medical reasons must be honored, these days, requests are often more a matter of personal preference than necessity. Vegetarian, gluten-free, vegan, and organic are common and easily accommodated requests. Things get more complicated (and expensive) when guests request specific food items or preparation techniques. Last week’s requests included steamed vegetables only, a particular brand of coconut water, and meat sourced from a specific vendor. The most challenging are people who walk in and announce their restrictions, expecting to be accommodated on the spot.

In our “have it now” society, guests don’t realize that catered events don’t have the flexibility of restaurants and that the menus for meals at a private home, the president’s official residence, for example, are planned well in advance. There is no larder behind the kitchen door stocked like a gourmet grocery store. Options for unexpected substitutions are often quite limited. What’s an event planner to do?

While it won’t always be possible to accommodate all requests, our job is to make everyone feel welcome. The foods we serve are perhaps the most personal way to do so.

The best way to prepare is by thinking in advance about the guest list, your locale, and the capabilities of your caterer. Caterers report the Millennial generation is the most apt to make special requests. More than half of the top ten vegetarian cities in the U.S. are university towns. If you live in one them, it goes without saying that you should be prepared to host many vegetarians at your events. If your alumni include a high percentage of people who observe religious dietary laws, obviously, you need to plan accordingly.

Discuss the guest list with your caterer in advance trying to anticipate special requests. For a served meal it is preferable to select a menu that can be discreetly customized so that all plates look the same. For example, a beef entrée with several sides of vegetables can be easily modified by substituting the meat with a vegetarian product and keeping the same sides.

On a buffet, offer a wide variety of options labeling each food, noting which are vegetarian, which have common allergens such as nuts or seafood, and which are gluten-free so that guests can select the foods that meet their needs.

Create a special request drop-down on computer registration sites or on rsvp cards. Limit the number of choices to help control frivolous requests such as one we recently received from a woman who replied to attend an academic symposium. She provided a long list of foods she doesn’t like and won’t eat, noting at the end she is, however, willing to eat organic honey.

State a deadline for special requests and note that while you will try to accommodate requests after that time, no guarantee is made. This gives you and the caterers time to prepare and some wiggle room when people show up at the last minute demanding a special meal.  One word of caution: When one events planner recently took dietary requests online, the responses jumped to 30 percent of the guest list.

If you’re the one with special dietary needs, it’s polite to confine your requests to restrictions based on serious needs (allergies, religious laws, vegetarianism) vs. simple preferences (you don’t like tomatoes). Always make your needs known when accepting an invitation.  If you forget, it is poor form to put your host on the spot by expecting to be accommodated when you arrive. Instead, simply avoid or discreetly decline the foods that you cannot eat and catch a snack on the way home!