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Responsible Food Management

Here’s how to trash less food—and help more people—at your next event

By Trish Snyder

Sandra Wood remembers watching beautifully prepared meals tossed in the trash due to no-shows at an event in 2001. Walking back to her hotel, she was approached by a homeless person asking for money.

“I’d just thrown out high-quality seafood and here was somebody who needed food,” says Wood, former meeting manager with the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) in Ottawa.

Food waste isn’t a conference problem, it’s a global crisis. The United Nations estimates that roughly one third of the world’s annual food supply is wasted. That’s why Wood champions smart planning and food recovery after seeing a successful program in action (see “How to donate surplus food”). “I realized I have the ability to influence my suppliers and make a difference,” says Wood. Here’s how to trash less food—and help more people—at your next event.

HOST TICKETED EVENTS: The CMA sells separate tickets for optional events. Wood believes seeing a dollar amount makes attendees less inclined to skip, which gives planners better numbers for catering.

SUPPORT SUSTAINABLE SUPPLIERS: Commercial kitchens budget for 3 to 5 per cent waste to make sure they won’t run out. Belong Catering, the resident caterer at Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto, shaved that to 1 per cent by keeping smaller margins on extra food, planning backup dishes to serve if required, and preparing food as it’s needed. “It costs more in labour, but it’s a labour of love because we know the positive impact on our environment and the community,” says general manager David Bunn.

TRY FOOD STATIONS: Small-plate dinners help control portions and presentation.

RETHINK THE BUFFET: Present food in smaller bowls so they don’t look empty. As the event winds down, ask the kitchen to close down food lines instead of replenishing. “We have to learn to be OK with running out of food at the end,” says Wood. Fill buffet gaps with flowers or other decorations.

SERVE FOOD PEOPLE LIKE: Pork belly is all the rage with chefs but will it fly with everyone? If in doubt, ask during registration.

CHANGE EXPECTATIONS: Communicate your waste-reduction goal to the venue. Wood gives permission to hold food back until it’s required (once it leaves the kitchen, it’s garbage). “I tell them if I see food going in the garbage, I’m disappointed.”

Delegates ate well at Sandra Wood’s last conference, but she also supplied 540 meals to people in need through La Tablée des Chefs (, a brokerage service that delivers unserved food from the service industry to community groups in Quebec, Ontario and Alberta. For a small fee, the group collects regularly from 47 registered hotels and restaurants, and also recovers food from one-time events. These aren’t buffet leftovers, which must be discarded: surplus food that never left the kitchen is packaged, frozen and delivered.

Under the Donation of Food Act, donors cannot be held liable for damages caused by consuming donated food as long as it was safely handled, not rotten or contaminated, and distributed without intent to cause harm. Second Harvest ( runs a similar service in the Greater Toronto Area. Look for food rescue or food recovery services in your city.

“With La Tablée des Chefs, I gained clarity around the legal issues of food donation,” says Wood. “Now when I’m told by venues that legally they can’t, I know that this isn’t a satisfactory response.”

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