In the spirit of family barbecues, farm stands and slices of juicy watermelon, we thought it would be a great time to talk about how to incorporate local and seasonal foods into your meetings and events. It’s a great way to support the local economy while serving delectable, healthy food to clients and offering a unique take on traditional banquet and catering menus. And it has the added benefit of a CSR component, an attractive option for companies who are interested in knowing that they can promote environmental sustainability and local economic viability to their stakeholders as part of their mission and vision.
According to Dan Ruben, Founder and Executive Director of Boston Green Tourism, “Serving local food is green because less energy is required to transport it and utilizing local and otherwise sustainably-grown food is a great way to show that a venue cares about the environment, serves fresh food, contributes to open space and food growers and harvesters in the region and provides visitors with the sense that they are visiting a unique region of the country. How would one feel going to a meeting in Italy and being served hamburgers? Serving local food is a way of making a meeting special, especially when the guests are from out of the region”.
Any venue can take advantage of being able to offer local food options as a way to advertise and promote its green practices and many consumers will look for this when deciding which organizations to patronize. In fact, according to Trip Advisor, 73% of hotel visitors would prefer to visit a green hotel and look for the Trip Advisor green ranking when choosing where they will stay. Many Boston-area hotels are on this list and are actively taking steps to promote their food sustainability and overall green practices. Planners can use such designations to integrate green options into their events, helping to position organizations to benefit from being associated with green suppliers and the positive public relations such a partnership can elicit.
In this way, practicing sustainable food sourcing has many benefits to the client, planner and supplier. The client is able to promote a sustainable local foods program and environmental responsibility as well as offer a menu free of many of the toxins and hormones found in conventionally produced food. The planner can build off of this and help the organization gain market visibility by identifying local food options, making sustainable choices and working with suppliers to integrate these into events. Suppliers that partner with local producers contribute to the reduction of emissions from the transport of mass produced food, support the small business community and promote stewardship of the environment.
Making the change to a “green” menu by offering locally sourced food may seem like a daunting task at first, but it all begins with the first step. Suppliers working with local producers don’t need to completely change out menus to make a difference- this could be financially or logistically challenging to do all at once. Just substituting a couple of local ingredients or items can help to “green” a menu without requiring a complete overhaul. For example, there are many local vintners and dairy farms who would love the opportunity to expose their products to a geographically diverse and transient population as a way to spread brand recognition and create a niche in the marketplace. Offering these items in addition to traditional selections provides a broader range of options to clients and promotes relationships within the community. Planners can also take advantage of this by asking venues to incorporate local foods where possible and promoting these choices on menus and food labels.
“Dan Ruben of Boston Green Tourism says that organizations should weigh the costs and benefits of offering local food and that quite often, the benefits outweigh the costs.”
And there are other considerations as well: price is the primary objection to using locally sourced foods for both planners and suppliers. Dan Ruben of Boston Green Tourism says that organizations should weigh the costs and benefits of offering local food and that quite often, the benefits outweigh the costs. When looking at the initial up front cost comparison between conventionally produced and locally grown food options, however, it often appears that the latter is more expensive. This is because the retail price of mass produced agriculture is artificially deflated through the receipt of government sponsored farm subsidies. But often, once the hidden costs of production and distribution are factored in, the price of local produce is equivalent to that of the same item in a supermarket. The initial per item/pound cost is actually much less because local producers do not have to contend with expenses associated with transportation (the average supermarket product in America travels 1500 miles), storage, pesticide application and other overhead. However, the negative effects on the environment in the form of pollutants released into the atmosphere through the transportation of generic products, the overreliance on fossil fuels from large scale food distribution and the need for pesticides on conventionally grown produce have a much greater cost.
There is also often a hesitation to switch to locally sourced foods due to supply chain issues and the reality of certain foods only being available during the warmer months. In New England, this is the case for the majority of produce and venues would not have the option to choose local products from the Fall through late Spring months. But this does offer an interesting opportunity to create a menu based on what is available seasonally and to use these selections as highlights when planning events. For instance, foods that store well, such as potatoes and cabbage, or are harvested later in the season, such as carrots, parsnips or kale, could be highlighted during the off season. And many local products are not seasonably dependent and could be featured year-round, such as locally made wine and beer, prepared foods, legumes, maple products, honey, cheese, butter, poultry and meats. Incorporating a few of these items into menu selections can help customize an event and offer a unique, memorable experience to guests.
“Although visiting the farmer’s market every week would yield a beautiful selection of products from a variety of local farms, finding a larger cooperative or local marketplace is critical for a reliable selection of items and on-demand deliveries.”
Purchasing local food in quantities large enough to stock inventory is also a consideration. “It may become more difficult to source a sufficient quantity of local food given we live in the northeast where our growing season is much shorter than other parts of the country. Also, local producers are much smaller in scale than large corporate producers,” notes Mae Zagami, President of the Mass Local Food Cooperative. Although visiting the farmer’s market every week would yield a beautiful selection of products from a variety of local farms, finding a larger cooperative or local marketplace is critical for a reliable selection of items and on-demand deliveries. The Mass Local Food Cooperative is one such option, an expansive online farmers’ market that offers products grown, raised and produced by its members, local farmers and artisans from all over Massachusetts. Dole & Bailey, originally founded in Faneuil Hall Market in 1868, is an approved Green Restaurant Distributor and offers meats, seafood, dairy, produce, desserts, baked goods and local artisanal products through Northeast Family Farms and Northeast Family Fisheries. Another option is community supported agriculture (CSA) delivery programs available directly through farms or as online marketplaces that offer the ability to purchase bundles from many different farms at once. These are typically purchased in shares and offer a selection of produce from the week’s harvest, but may also provide other products such as honey, eggs, dairy, meat and flowers. This type of program would be a good choice for recurring smaller events or as a complement to existing menus.
One local product that is easy to incorporate and available year-round is seafood, a Boston standard and menu staple for clients seeking a New England-themed event. Sustainably harvested seafood is also a hot topic and including locally sourced fish on menus provides an opportunity to support New England fisheries and promote practices that preserve the aquatic environment. The New England Aquarium even offers consulting for professionals in the hospitality industry to educate them on how to identify and source locally caught and sustainably harvested species. And the added benefit is the variety of local seafood available to instantly customize any menu, including cod, haddock, pollock, halibut, tuna, mackerel, flounder, bluefish, bass and an array of shellfish.
“Suppliers that are able to actively promote their green efforts have a distinct competitive advantage, especially in the near future when “being green” will be an industry standard.”
Some organizations are not only actively sourcing and using local ingredients in their menus, but producing them as well. One example is Boston’s Seaport Hotel, which offers Seaport Honey Ginger IPA, a craft beer brewed using over 300 pounds of honey produced by over a million bees living on the roof of the hotel. Trip Advisor has even initiated a new Green Leader certification program for hotels and utilizing locally sourced and sustainable food is one of the categories for certification. Many hotels in the Boston area have received this certification and as of the end of 2015, fifty-five hotels have achieved recognition in at least one category. Many planners and clients are already taking these certifications into account when making decisions for their events, so suppliers that are able to actively promote their green efforts have a distinct competitive advantage, especially in the near future when “being green” will be an industry standard.
And the movement is gaining momentum as public awareness is helping to guide clients in planning events. “Seeing movies and documentaries like Food, Inc. made me more aware of the health benefits of eating local food and the potential dangers of eating mass-produced, genetically modified food. Also, knowing where my food comes from gave increased assurance that the food I consume is more healthy and tasteful,” says Zagami. One quick way to see this for yourself: fry a local egg next to a conventional one and look at the difference in the color of the yolk. Or try a bite of a local carrot and then a bite of one bought at a grocery store. Now visit a farm stand or farmer’s market and imagine the possibilities....