4 sustainable event design strategies to reduce food waste

By: ITA Group
event food waste in garbage bags

As more brands integrate ESG (Environment, Social, Governance) goals into all aspects of their operations and core values, clients are assessing the environmental impact of events. Sustainability can’t be an afterthought for event designers as many are striving to deliver a zero-waste experience. One step toward a more sustainable event is reducing food waste, a leading strategy for mitigating environmental impact.  

Studies have shown that in the U.S. up to 35 percent of edible food waste gets tossed each year. According to the nonprofit ReFED, that’s the equivalent of almost 90 billion meals. Yikes! Event catering can be a major culprit. But there are solutions. Smart planning diverts leftovers from the landfill to address another growing crisis: Food insecurity. Across the country, nonprofit partners are working to connect individuals in need with recovered food from farms, grocers and even large-scale special events.

Identifying strategies to make events more sustainable, like reducing and recovering food waste, are at the front of event design processes. These strategies can make a local impact on globally important issues. Here’s how to get started:

1. Align with internal stakeholders and event partners

Creating a food waste policy is a great starting place. Whether for a large event or small gathering, it provides universal guidance to the whole organization and demonstrates clear prioritization of food waste reduction. Though circumstances may not always make donation or diversion of food possible, predefined policies can kickstart conversations. 

If you have an internal sustainability team dedicated to ESG, talk with them about your company’s goals and how your event can support those efforts. 

  • Start by benchmarking efforts against previous event data. Having measurements will help your internal team celebrate the initiative’s impact of your event later on. 
  • Learn what supply chain strategies are currently on the table. Major hotel groups have implemented enhanced sustainability capabilities across their brands. Their focus on internal practices, as well as data and metrics reporting specific to your program, will help you speak to your company’s sustainability priorities. Food service vendors may already have food waste diversion programs in place, but often need client support to set them in motion. This could be an opportunity to educate compliance teams on the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which protects individuals and companies from liability for items that have been responsibly donated. 
individual fruit and salad cups at event

2. Shrink and personalize orders 

Event Managers tend to over guarantee with their caterers. Nobody wants to feel like they’re fighting over the last piece of chicken or reaching for the lone cookie on the tray. In addition, many caterers build in a “buffer” of additional portions—especially at larger events and buffets. 

Since most meetings include absentees or attendees who skip the meals, it may be safe to estimate down on your guest counts. 

  • Ask the caterer for options to minimize buffers for some if not all dishes. Guessing what guests will want to eat also often leads to lots of excess portions.
  • Avoid pre-plating meals. Too often, if someone doesn’t sit at a spot, the salads, desserts, or other items already set on tables are discarded. For smaller events, take meal pre-orders as part of the attendee personalization plan. 

Related: Personalization helps drive event engagement. Read more about how to make collecting data fun for attendees. 

food composting at event

3. Recycle food scraps 

Banana peels, apple cores and other food scraps could be composted or even sent to animal feed outlets. Start conversations early so you know what products a composter will accept. (This is a good opportunity to think about menu choices that minimize the need for utensils, too.) 

Attendees often don’t pay attention to waste station signage and discard materials into the closest bins, contaminating the stream. Consider training staff or volunteers to monitor the waste stations, helping educate and guide attendees on proper disposal. Use that facetime as an opportunity to hype the next keynote or activity. Offering a behind-the-scenes tour of the property to show how the venue manages food and beverages or grows their own produce in an on-site greenhouse could even be a breakout session, too.

volunteers collecting food for local food bank

4. Build a food rescue relationship

Food recovery organizations address dual social issues by connecting food-insecure families and individuals with food that would otherwise be wasted. If your venue doesn’t have a preferred partner for this, numerous national networks can link you with organizations working on the ground in the city where you’re hosting the event. Ask what kind of portions and containers the organizations can accept and plan accordingly. Here are two common brands to start with.

  • Feeding America is one place to start to access hunger relief nonprofits across the country.
  • Food Rescue Hero network can connect you with organizations that can get event leftovers into community fridges, mutual aid organizations and homeless shelters.

With proper planning, what’s good for the planet can also help people in need and benefit your budget. Walking the talk by strategically reducing food waste signals to the people involved in your event that you’re serious about sustainability. Communicating the “why” behind your choices and highlighting food rescue partners within the program should be part of the overall story you share. Explanation and education on those strategic choices go a long way in helping attendees understand the sustainable actions taken on a program. 

Investors aren’t the only stakeholders interested in ESG. Read our white paper on how activating an ESG strategy can help engage employees

ITA Group logo
ITA Group

ITA Group custom-crafts engagement solutions that motivate and inspire your people. ITA Group infuses strategies that fuel advocacy and drive business results for some of the world’s biggest brands.