All that’s growing is not green: thoughts on menu planning

First, I offer salute to all organic farmers. That said, (insert wince) organic should not be the last word in green menu planning. And, while I’m at it, local isn’t either. How about a menu plan that balances a collection of important factors to find the best sustainable result for the event in question? How about a menu that takes into account the many benefits of local and organic foods, but also the issues of greenhouse gas emissions and toxic, fossil fuel based pesticide/herbicide use?

This is not the first time I’ve thought about this …it comes up all the time. Examples that prompt this posting:

  • Planners tell us that they refrain from sustainable meeting strategies saying that they are too costly, brandishing organic menu prices as exhibit.
  • An “all organic” menu that features wine from Chile and lamb from New Zealand and served in Northern Europe as part of a “green” event
  • Produce grown in the Netherlands requires about 15% more energy (to heat the greenhouses) than those in Spain. Spain, meanwhile, uses about 20% more toxic pesticide than does the Netherlands.

So, the thoughts:

  • Before your event, set goals for your menu planning and share these with your supplier. Maybe it’s 40% local, 20 % organic, 100% seasonal. Decide which issues are most important to you or your client. Make it clear that you seek their support to help you achieve them. Planners can have great influence over the practices and purchases of their suppliers. Suppliers are often surprised to learn of how much cheaper high quality local product is. A good example is bread. Many venues have contracts with food wholesalers that ship bread in from great distances when, across town, a better product can be offered at equal or better pricing.

  • Before assuming that a responsible, sustainable menu is too costly, check it out (bread example above). If a particular item is more costly, another may be cheaper. Think about the entire event and ways that smart choices can offer savings to compensate for your menu planning goals.

  • When planning a menu with a big organic component, consider the emissions when making selections. I think we’re missing the point to ship things great distances in the name of being environmentally friendly, no disrespect to the Chilean wine producers.

  • As for the 3rd point, this gets tricky fast. Most planners don’t have the time or resources to complete a life cycle analysis for every menu item and the variety of dramatic environmental impacts in today’s world of industrial agriculture make thoughtful selections awfully complicated. Until better, faster, more affordable tools are available, consider the following:

Michael Pollan’s latest book, In Defence of Food, makes a compelling and supporting case for taking a simpler, yet more holistic approach to food purchases. While he admits that it’s not perfect I think it’s safe to paraphrase one aspect of his argument as encouraging people to think local first, then organic. His thought is that a person will make fewer mistakes with such a practice. So, let’s call that a place to start. Maybe the place to start is reading this book!

short intro:

Steve Ward, Executive Chef for the award winning Doubletree Hotel Portland in Portland, OR, has a practice of purchasing and promoting a philosophy based on his FLOSS principle. Fresh, Local, Organic, Seasonal, Sustainable. In that order, it’s a great framework for making menu choices. Check out:

Lastly, ask your provider. Most established venues, be they hotels or congress centers, have skilled culinary teams that have the resources to help you make better decisions for your event’s unique particular location or season.

Note that this is a topic being studied by thousands of people in think tanks and universities across the globe. Scratch the surface and a web of confusing issues is quickly revealed. Still, I assert that it’s important to make positive changes where you can, and to bring positive influence where ever possible. A maxim to consider: Nobody can do everything but everybody can do something. What can you do?

Let us hear from you. We look forward to sharing your insights.

Future post sneak preview: Embedded water in food: seeking more sustainable practices

In 2008, a study by UK’s Carbon Trust revealed that a potato chip company could save money and carbon emissions by changing the way they purchased potatoes. Farmers, paid by weight of their potatoes, went to elaborate and expensive measures to add water to their product. The potato chip company, then, had increased emissions due to the frying time needed to remove the additional water. Now farmers are rewarded for low water product and everybody wins.

1 Comment

  1. […] plates are already full of confusion with the local/organic/pesticide/herbicide stuff mentioned in previous posts.  Still, these confusions don’t get us off the hook from responsibly reducing climate change […]

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