The Incredible Waste of Food at Events

I was at the annual meeting for one of our LPs yesterday. Promptly at 10am the took away the breakfast buffet. I was getting a new cup of tea at the time and watched them haul off trenchers of food that would easily feed 50 people. I had the same experience the previous two days at the SERGE event as several of the meals were buffet style and at the end of the meal there was still food for a group that was equal to or larger than us left.

Tuesday night dinner at SERGE was a sit down meal in a ballroom. The food was “ok” but not awesome and when I looked around there was a lot left uneaten, especially the dessert which was about as many calories as the main course. It was a pretty simple four course meal – soup, salad, main, and giant dessert. I found out after that the cost for each person was $300. Now – I’ve had my share of $300 meals – the one we had that night was a $50 meal at best.

I probably wouldn’t have noticed this if I hadn’t had three things connect – the giant waste of food on Monday and Tuesday (which I mentally noted on Tuesday at lunch), the trenchers full of food being hauled away Wednesday morning, and the $300 / person ticket for the mediocre meal at a top end hotel on Tuesday night.

It feels a lot like getting charged $15 / day for Internet service when you stay at a $400 / night hotel. The hotel is just jacking you on price because they can. But it feels worse when it’s a perishable good, like food, that is going to just get tossed in the trash.

I have no clue what to do about it but figured it was worth a rant. Maybe some of you have constructive suggestions.

  • http://www.about.me/briankung Brian Kung

    Food waste is a huge problem for the environment (think of the resources that went into making that food!) and a lot of wasted opportunity for those not fortunate to have an easy source of food. I’ve heard that anywhere from 33% to 50% of food is just thrown away:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/jan/10/half-world-food-waste

  • http://twitter.com/sarahokeefe Sarah O’Keefe

    In some cases, leftovers are donated to local food banks. Not much you can do as an attendee, but if you are an event organizer, it’s worth asking about their policy.

    If your complaint is more about value, then again, it’s up to the event organizers to figure out whether this is a priority for their attendees. I have been to some conferences with AMAZING food. For some venues, the food is a draw. Others, not so much.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      It’s less about value and more about waste. Although when you found out that a mediocre dinner at a top tier hotel is $300 per head value does play into it.

  • Jonny Schnittger

    Several shops and restaurants in Dublin (Ireland) used to donate unused food, fresh baked breads, etc… to homeless charities in the city for years. During the economic boom and because of concerns over health & safety ( and getting sued ) the practice has fallen by the wayside. I personally think there is a great opportunity for someone to revive this and to really help lots of struggling families and homeless.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Totally agree.

      • Jonny Schnittger

        Perhaps an alternative food disposal/dispersal business model would work? Instead of paying a garbage company to collect their waste, usable food could be collected, quality checked and distributed? Similar to the way some companies now collect used cooking oils for recycling into bio-fuels.

        • http://about.me/celivingston Courtney Livingston

          Was thinking about this very thing the other day. It seems like most charities won’t take the food because local health code creates a situation where their kitchens could be shut down if people get sick from food they serve (whether they prepare it or not), so, to eliminate risk, they just don’t accept donations of food that isn’t properly sealed/wrapped.

          But what if someone started a service that contracted with individual events and charities that oversaw the food prep and transport to the charity? If someone from a vetted (insured, maybe?) company oversaw the safe prep of food from the event kitchen to the charity kitchen…it seems like risk could be minimized enough to make it work.

          The events might even be able to mention this service as a kind of “value add” to help people swallow that $300 price tag a little easier.

          • Jonny Schnittger

            Exactly what I was thinking, the real problem with doing this is logistics. There is quiet a lot of effort involved in collecting, transferring, checking and preparing food from all over a city in a timely manner. You’ve also got to worry about issues regarding quality and if the food has been in contact with other substances like nuts or other food stuffs people can be allergic to. If these issues could be tackled, I think this kind of service could really take off and provide real benefits to people

  • http://twitter.com/rodley John Rodley

    Definitely worth a rant. The problem needs to be measured. Is the food waste at an event actually greater in total than if the same number of people had eaten at home or at restaurants? I’d guess that it’s greater than at-home and just a little more than at-restaurants. I have children and food-waste has long since fallen into the “pick your battles” category.

    And speaking of jacked-up rents, remember when venues could charge outrageous fees for use of a credit card terminal? Square, ROAM Data et al killed that cash cow off. It’s time for “Square for event food” …

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      I like that!

  • http://www.clearcontext.com/ Deva Hazarika

    Love that you made this post. I think it’s a bit challenging for conference/meeting organizers because especially for high ticket events at expensive locations there’s a certain expectation of food/drink/etc to be provided. But I bet if a conference took the lead and instead of more mediocre pastries with coffee in the afternoon sold a food bank sponsorship that came with a placard next to the coffee explaining that they have donated x to a food bank instead of more snacks for the few hours between lunch and end of day reception snacks and dinner, everyone would be fine. And maybe it would open the door for even broader changes. This is something I’m always aware of and it feels even crazier against the backdrop of separating trash into four different bins so as not to waste resources…

    • http://freepository.com John Minnihan

      I love the food bank sponsorship idea.

  • Mark Littlewood

    I run a lot of events and this is a very hard one to solve so very interested in any ideas…

    One the one hand, part of the event experience that we want our guests to have is that there is nice, healthy, tasty food available. I also have a natural aversion to waste and it is criminal how much food is wasted at corporate events (I notice this even more in the US than in the UK incidentally).

    We usually ‘underorder’ by a good 20% of full event capacity, partly because not everyone is going to be in the room at the same time – some people go back to their rooms for example at lunchtime at a conference, and partly because hotels often over cater.

    Hotels will charge anything up to $120 for a halfway decent lunch (I was once quoted $94 +Service etc) for a takeaway sandwich lunch – an apple/orange, soda, pre-made sandwich and some chips. In this mad world, most people are far less interested in the waste and far more interested in getting, ‘value’ for the event organiser. Producing too much food is part of the process of looking like they are doing their jobs.

    On the subject of unnecessary waste, the InterContinental Hotel chain will ONLY serve ‘Fiji Water’ at the functions that it caters for. That is actually still water that has been sucked out of the ground in Fiji and then shipped around the world. The InterContinental sees this as being a huge benefit to event organisers – something ‘really unusual and a talking point’ said our sales person. No alternative, including jugs of iced water, were offered until I threatened to go elsewhere.

    • Erica Brandon Phelps

      Mark – see my post. What about opening your own non-profit that distributes food? that way you would retain control over food quality until it ultimately meets its last “customer”

    • http://patrickfoley.com/about Patrick Foley

      Mark, at a smaller event (say, < 25 people), would it work to have a sushi-style written menu of available items that guests could request and could be quickly procured?

  • http://freepository.com John Minnihan

    As John Rodley points out, measurement is the key to solving this issue.

    There are two seemingly irreconcilable dynamics at play here: the event’s need to provide what was promised / paid for (i.e. lunch for 200 people at 11:30am) and the obvious, always-going-to-happen ‘there-aren’t-200-people-eating-lunch’. There may be more, there may be less. There won’t be exactly 200.

    I think a JIT model cld be very helpful here. If event attendees could ‘vote’ (ie. yes /no) abt whether they want to eat lunch say 3 hours before the food is put out, this cld give caterers a realistic count of both attendance & intent. They cld then adjust the amount of perishable food both prepared + put out.

    Wouldn’t be perfect, but it would be a lot better than cooking / prepping to the max number the event organizer put on a catering oder 90 days ago.

  • http://reecepacheco.com/ reece

    lived this with the family restaurant and all the weddings we used to cater…

    my dad – the chef – was always most proud when we had zero leftovers. hell, he gets that proud look on his face when there are zero leftovers after dinner at the family table, too

    but when there are leftovers, good chefs will find a way to incorporate that into other meals… ie. last night’s chicken dinner is tomorrow’s chicken soup

    unfortunately, many large events can’t/don’t operate like that of a smaller restaurant. makes me sick to think of all that waste

    here’s some startling info from a CNN article..

    “The British-based independent Institution of Mechanical Engineerssaid about 4.4 billion tons of food is produced annually and roughly half of it is never eaten.

    Some of it is lost to inefficient harvesting, storage and transportation, while the rest is wasted by markets or consumers. The group also said food waste also impacts land, energy and water use.”

    http://edition.cnn.com/2013/01/10/world/world-food-waste

    * leftovers = food that hasn’t touched an individual’s plate

  • tomcross

    Brad, good point, however it is how hotels make their profit margin. Maybe ask if they can donate the food as I have done and they often do.

  • OL

    A marketplace that connects anyone with unused food with homeless shelters and other entities in need for food. It is upsetting to see food thrown away when so many are people are hungry. I am sure that any big city/community would fund a car/truck to deliver for those in need.

  • http://blog.kwiqly.com/ James Ferguson @kWIQly

    TED Talk – Global Food Waste Scandal – Tristram Stuart

    This guy went to school near me – it’s a pretty shocking talk 15 mins and really interesting (and quite entertaining)

    • http://blog.kwiqly.com/ James Ferguson @kWIQly

      Attached National Food Waste Averages vs GDP/Health

      Who would have thought Luxembourg ?

  • Harry

    Hey Brad,

    Someone is doing something about this. One of my Students at Unv of Maryland started Food Recovery Network (http://www.foodrecoverynetwork.org) when he saw wasted food at the campus dining halls and drove the food himself to a homeless shelter in Wash. DC. Grown to 7 campuses nationwide and has donated over 138,000 lbs of uneaten food that would have been thrown away. Check them out.
    Harry Geller

    • Jonny Schnittger

      Wow, looks like they are doing a very impressive job!

  • Erica Brandon Phelps

    I worked in event catering management for years, and I can tell you my experience.

    I asked about this many times, as I worked at a major league sports venue. You can only imagine how much food is thrown away at the end of a sporting event for tens of thousands of people, not to mention all the high end catering that goes on behind the scenes during each game.

    The outcome was always this: there isn’t the time or money to do this. There is also liability for the company which prepared the food. Once the food is out of their hands and in someone else’s, the company loses control of the food safety. In my opinion, the answer was for said company to open a second business or a non-profit that would distribute this food after an event. Hm, maybe I should do that…

    In all reality, the food service employees will scrounge the leftovers during their breaks and share them with other employees throughout the venue (i.e. custodial, building management, etc.) in a very unofficial way. It was very common for people to poke their nose in the kitchen for leftovers after an event, and word would spread fast throughout the venue if it looks like some “good” leftovers would be coming through (i.e. a full tray of hot wings, an expensive cheese platter).

    Another lesser known secret is that you can always take these catering leftovers home. Many choose not to because they think it “looks bad”, but if you asked for containers or brought your own, they are obliged to let you take it because you purchased it. If you are the host, ask ahead of time and they will box it up. If you are a guest, just ask for a takeout box.

  • Chris Franks

    Thanks for this Brad…. this issue frankly pisses me off. How can we waste so much food when so many people are hungry? I was pleased when I stumbled on a group that is tackling this. They’re small and underfunded but doing really good work. http://www.wedontwaste.org/

  • http://twitter.com/zxed Chief Hamster

    food wastage is at several levels; research estimates that 40% of food produced in america never gets eaten and that the wasted food would have been enough to feed the hungry in america. People are doing something about it, the comment that Harry shared re:Food recovery network is one of the organizations that re-routes that would have been wasted; but this still does not address some of the root causes even though it solves part of another problem (another example http://feedingamerica.org/)

    While there isn’t a silver-bullet, there are ways to reduce food wastage that happens at several levels, events/restaurants (what you noticed) is just one of them. I have more data that I can share and (this isn’t a self promotion) I am currently investing in one possible solution I think will reduce food wastage that works at the individual level (rather than groups for a cause), will hopefully present later this year.

  • nostoppingprogress

    My wife works at a major regional hospital…you should see the unhealthy crap, and plenty of it, that they serve their employees with posters in the background about healthy eating and active lifestyle!

  • Nick C.

    Brad, the issue is not just prevalent at events but actually hits every restaurant or eating establishment that makes any food in advance (i.e. most places). Obviously, one challenge in dealing with cooked or prepared food is the short shelf life. Because of the short time available before spoilage, I believe a large part of the answer falls back on individual responsibility (gasp, what a concept) to make it right. As an example, our family diner business donates food to the local soup kitchen on a daily basis. Not much prepared food goes to waste.

    • http://twitter.com/danielharan Daniel Haran

      Bingo: “makes any food in advance”. Batch work creates waste.

      The opportunity isn’t to find a way to donate all this food or better plan amounts; it’s in replacing a batch process with on-demand preparation.

  • http://twitter.com/herringunderfur anne weiler

    There are a number of organizations that redistribute food. 2nd Harvest picks up unused food from the food industry and redistributes from all over the country. The Vancouver BC convention center boasts on their website that they redistribute unused food to local charities. The facilities are there, it’s probably up to the conference organizers to make the right choices. Most of them probably don’t think about this.

  • Nasir Ali

    Brad, check out http://www.fullcirclefeed.com, a Syracuse, NY-based startup that is turning restaurant table scraps into pet food.

  • http://cynthiaschames.tumblr.com/ Cynthia Schames

    Here in NYC, City Harvest delivers over 40 million POUNDS of food every year, and it’s largely donated food from events, venues and restaurants. They also accept cash donations from individuals, and I’ve been donating since ca. 1999.

    Hunger is a huge problem. It’s almost mind-boggling to think about this as an issue in America, especially when we routinely sit around talking in a blase voice about how some tech “company” was just acquired for 30 million dollars, as we sip our $5 lattes.

    I’m not directly solving this problem (and in fact I’m sure there’s a funny comment to be made about the founder of a company focused on Plus Size women caring about this issue), but I have set aside 1% of my startup’s equity, as well as 1% of any future profits, to go toward social good and philanthropy. Children going hungry is at the top of my personal list of societal problems to solve.

    This is a long-winded way of saying thank you, Brad, for actually *seeing* and caring.

    • Guest

      TO UNDERSTAND SYSTEM, LOOK AT WHAT IT MAKE.

      OUR SYSTEM MAKE HUNGRY CHILDREN.

      • http://cynthiaschames.tumblr.com/ Cynthia Schames

        That true, Dino.

  • http://www.facebook.com/matt.w.abbott Matt Abbott

    Check out what Robert Egger is doing with LA Kitchen (lakitchen.org) and formerly DC Central Kitchen (dccentralkitchen.org). Robert is motivated to get talented boomers working on national food insecurity. DCCK model would be a great fit for a city like Boulder.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kathkeating Kathy Gallup Keating

    Seems like it would be great marketing for an events center to highlight how they donate their unused food items. Event centers could get some sort of a “seal of approval” from an independent organization for their donation efforts.

    Unfortunately, unless event coordinators starting asking for this from their event centers, the event centers are not going to provide this sort of info. We need to make this part of our decision criteria.

    One other problem is that in some areas, re-purposing the food is illegal.

  • nportillo

    Hi
    My wife and I are from Venezuela (South America country) and we got really surprised on this topic because for us is almost a capital sin to discard/waste food. My wife decided to switch careers and went back to the college to get a degree in culinary arts. What we found that one of the major drivers of this sad situation are the strong regulations on what the government call Food Safety rules.
    If the hotel doesn’t discard on time the food exposed to the public (regardless the fact that it was not touched by anyone) they get a significant punishment ($$$ & rating) from the Food safety regulators.
    In my opinion, a way to address this is to start a petition asking to review the current regulations. Put together a non-profit organization oriented to educate event organizers to carefully select the food for an event because as Brad said, what is the % of people willing to eat a dessert that has the same o more calories that the main course?
    Don’t know what other people think but I’m convinced that we need to look at the roots of the problems (regulation, menu selection, etc) and at the same time address the consequences
    My 2 cents
    Nestor

    PS: this came across at the same time :( http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2013/05/201352113337568731.html?utm_campaign=website&utm_source=sendgrid.com&utm_medium=email

  • DanielHorowitz

    I like this model, http://www.feedingforward.org/ , a marketplace for excess food. Everyone who makes food in bulk has leftover; caterers, conferences, hotels, bakeries…we just need a system for them to share information about what is available and make it easier for those that can distribute the food to find out and access it.

  • http://www.justanentrepreneur.com Philip Sugar

    In Vegas it goes to feed the pigs. My understanding is once you put it out you can’t serve it again to another human. It does seem they waste a lot and yes the amount they charge is very steep.

    I have always been amazed that if I stay in a $75/night hotel the internet is free, the coffee is free, breakfast is free, parking is free. And to your point the food is setup so you only take what you need. But if I stay in a $400 a night hotel all of those cost and not only that I have a bellhop who wants to grab my bag and take it the last easiest 100 yards to my room and is offended if I don’t have $5 for a tip. Seriously that bag has been through: parking lot, security, terminal, up and down in plane bin, terminal, rental car bus.

    • FAKE GRIMLOCK

      PROFIT MARGIN IS POWERFUL BARRIER TO INNOVATION.

      BUT NOT TO DISRUPTION.

  • http://twitter.com/jasonkchi Jason Chi

    Echoing other readers, I also have been told uneaten food donated from events to food banks is fairly common. Just not sure if food banks only accept food from reputable caterers. Either way, it’s a good practice where a little less food is wasted.

  • Green

    Good for you for speaking up! One question, though: are you sure the food was just thrown out? I’ve worked for hunger relief organizations, and there are plenty of them out there which take the “extra” food & deliver it to soup kitchens. The only food that can’t be rescued is anything partially consumed, since that may be contaminated. Swapping hunger for disease isn’t much of an achievement! Some restaurants / caterers / stores promote their participation in these programs, while others prefer to keep it quiet. If anyone reading this is planning a catered event, you can arrange with a food rescue program to pick up leftovers whether or not the facility already participates.

  • Michael Tupper

    I get this, I stress on this all the time, thinking somebody needs that food they’re throwing out. It even stresses me out at home more than I’d like: wife serves full plates to everybody, kids eat half, rest goes in garbage disposal.

    Another thing about our societies consumption habits that really stresses me out: packaging. I am always wondering if our level of /obsession with individual packaging on just about every little thing is really necessary. Seems like we generate so much unnecessary garbage. Think Costco: “big box” with three “normal boxes” in it > “normal box” with 4 “packs” in it > each “pack” has 12 individual “items”… vs bulk section at WinCo where you scoop “item” from barrel into bag with hand shovel.

    All in the name of convenience.

  • http://amyd.tumblr.com/ denmeade

    definitely worth a rant. it doesn’t solve all the problems (over catering, supply chain issues etc.) but the team on a large event i’ve been involved with recently, has put a few good plans into place – working with the food rescue group, OzHarvest, and bringing a machine to the venue that dehydrates food waste.

    http://tedxsydney.com/site/item.cfm?item=0B09F603C290F6C9776D691CFD7D54FB

  • http://www.pointsandfigures.com pointsnfigures

    (I should have read the rest of the comments before I commented. Wasted comment@#$%)

  • Jeff

    Some friends of mine are involved with Rock and Warp It Up http://www.rockandwrapitup.org, a LI based group that picks up excess food served at events and delivers it to where it can be consumed.

    • http://twitter.com/andyidsinga andyidsinga

      That looks like a very cool org!

      + you said “Warp it Up” which is kind of a cool slip ;)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/William-R-Mosby/1176981657 William R. Mosby

    Stay at cheaper hotels. You’ll be likely to get wifi for free at least.

  • http://www.theYakRanch.com/ Grunniens Ranch

    So being late to the discussion and trying to catch all the comments, I think there are whole food chain opportunities. I only saw one comment about about pigs and none about composting. It is a crime for food to go to waste. It is also a crime for food waste to go to landfills. I think I know how Brad feels a bit about the rant though. I really think there is an huge opportunity to use technology, especially mobile to address the logistics but I don’t have any good answers yet.

    • Peteski

      I think the solution is multifaceted. Everyone has cell phones these days. Why not have attendees pick their items and quantities ahead of the event? (Hmm, do I smell a new business?) Then the caterers have a better guage of what to make. Lower waste in the end and suppliers could get feedback on what entrees were liked best, portion size, etc. for the next event.
      I am all for redistributing food to charitable organizations, but the better solution is not to make the incorrect amounts on the front end.
      I stay at a variety of hotel chains. Some offer free breakfast. The ones that do are sporatic on their efforts to check your room key to make sure you are staying there. I always wonder how much they throw away every day.

  • Dana Frasz

    This is a very challenging issue and I am so glad to see the lively discussion. I have had similar experiences with so much food being wasted at environmental ceremonies, food & sustainability conferences and even at galas to raise money for the hungry and homeless. Two years ago I launched Food Shift in Oakland CA. Food Shift is developing innovative and scalable food recovery programs that reduce waste, feed the hungry and provide job training for vulnerable populations. You can read more about our work here: http://www.ryot.org/feeding-people-not-trash-cans/154461 and please consider voting for us in a contest to receive $50k worth of public transit advertising in San Francisco to increase awareness about this important issue. Happy to talk with anyone in more depth about this problem and where we see the key barriers and insights.

  • Thillai Sandstrom

    Oi Brad. Eu estou curiosa para saber porque seu portugues e tao perfeito. Obrigada Thillai Sandstrom

  • http://www.y8friv.asia/ Friv 4

    I’m positive you place lots of effort into this short article.

  • Eric Lehnhardt

    Several people on this thread have suggested the need for improved logistics, maybe taking advantage of mobile apps, alongside the ubiquity of basic cell phones among the impoverished in modern society. Brad may recall the Edson Entrepreneurship Initiative at Arizona State University, which has worked with his Global Accelerator Network; for the past two years the Edson program has supported my team of co-founders as we are building and testing a rapid food recovery network centered around a mobile app and the ability to text notifications to those in need on a short time scale. It’s at work in Phoenix, AZ, now, having recovered hundreds of meals in the past two months of our pilot program. If I’ve piqued your interest, you can find us at flashfoodrecovery.com. Thanks, Brad, for a great conversation!