How to Rescue Leftovers

Food and floral arrangements are critical pieces to an event, but they are also two elements that inevitably get dumped in the trash once guests have left. Coordinating the delivery and donation of food in an efficient way is a difficult challenge for planners to execute on their own. However, more planners are coordinating the donation of leftover food and flowers to waste less and serve their communities more. In New York City in 2013, Robert Lee co-founded Rescuing Leftover Cuisine, a nonprofit that connects leftover food to homeless shelters, food pantries and organizations. Rescuing Leftover Cuisine now operates in 16 cities collecting donations from markets, restaurants and events, and bringing those to nearby organizations chosen by proximity and need. The nonprofit’s team of volunteers completes about 200 pickups per week and has donated 1.7 million total meals for the hungry. To help facilitate the process, the organization charges a $200 fee for pickup. Rescuing leftover food is a critical solution to helping millions of Americans who experience food insecurity, Lee says. “We produce enough food to feed everyone,” he says. “One-third of excess food… can solve food insecurity.”

Food Rescue

In some cases, corporations have partnered directly with food pantries to coordinate donations. This year, MGM Resorts International announced it will begin donating unserved food from Las Vegas events at Aria, Mandalay Bay, Bellagio, MGM Grand and Mirage to Three Square, the only food bank in Southern Nevada. Three Square serves more than 279,000 food-insecure people in the region. “During events, even with the best planning, some food almost always remains unserved,” says Yalmaz Siddiqui, vice president of corporate sustainability at MGM Resorts. “And even with strong inventory management processes, some food and beverage often remains unused in minibars and warehouses. We wanted to do more to manage that waste.” So far, MGM Resorts has donated more than 450,000 pounds of food, or 375,000 meals, since the program began. Both MGM Resorts and Rescuing Leftover Cuisine say a common misconception is that prepared, perishable food cannot be donated safely. Lee says many planners assume donating leftover cooked food is illegal. “Knowing that food can be donated is almost half the battle for a lot of the people who reach out to us,” he says. The key to safe donation is ensuring hot food stays hot and cold food stays cold, Siddiqui says. MGM Resorts worked with internal food safety experts to establish standard operating procedures. Blast-chilling technology has been key to MGM Resorts’ program as it allows Three Square to store food up to 90 days. “This allows us to get hot food down to safe temperatures as quickly as possible,” Siddiqui says. “We think [blast chilling] will be key to scaling this type of food donation across the industry.” Because the infrastructure for food rescue is expensive, not all food pantries are able to accept cooked food. MGM Resorts provided a grant of $768,000 to Three Square to fund equipment, staff and transportation for the program. However, food pantries that do not accept cooked food can still pick up leftover, unused ingredients and packaged snacks. In Austin, Central Texas Food Bank will accept any food that has remained sealed like granola bars, chips and containers of ingredients. The pantry directs planners to other local organizations that can pick up cooked food like Keep Austin Fed. Working directly with grocery stores and food vendors, as well as hotels and conference centers, to pick up leftover food, the pantry typically works with two to three events a month depending on the time of year, says Felicia Pena, community engagement director at Central Texas Food Bank. Pena recommends planners try to estimate a head count to reduce the amount of food left over from an event. To coordinate a leftovers pickup, it’s important to gather information that will ensure it takes place efficiently, asking questions such as: Is there a loading dock? Are there any traffic concerns a driver would need to know about?

Floral Arrangements

In addition to leftover food, organizations are working with the meetings and events industry to prevent flowers from being thrown in the trash and sent to landfills. Jennifer Grove knows firsthand the volume of floral waste created by events, having previously owned a boutique event company. To lengthen the life of her event floral pieces, she started bringing leftover blooms home with her as well as handing them over to friends and neighbors. Seeking out those who could use a beautiful bouquet, Grove began bringing leftover event flowers to a hospice facility. “The most rewarding and fulfilling part of that gift is the immediate emotional impact we can make,” Grove says. “You see the joy on the patients’ faces.” Grove launched her social-impact sustainability business, Repeat Roses, in 2014. In four years, the company’s reach has expanded from New York City throughout North America. The required lead time for Repeat Roses to schedule a pickup in New York City is 24 hours, whereas planners in other locations need to give 30 days’ notice for a pickup. Each excursion’s service fee starts at $1,500 based on the size and scale of the event’s floral plan. The flowers are repurposed into petite bouquets that are taken to hospice homes, cancer treatment centers, mental health facilities, and domestic abuse and homeless shelters. After the flowers have enjoyed a second life, Repeat Roses returns to compost them and recycle the containers. Grove encourages planners to keep sustainability in mind throughout the planning process. This includes considering where flowers are being shipped from and how they may be flown, refrigerated and trucked along the way. The organization’s staff has been known to walk repurposed flowers to their place of donation instead of driving to reduce their carbon footprint. Another way planners can ensure their floral pieces result in zero waste is to order flowers in reusable containers instead of in floral foam that cannot be repurposed. The nonprofit Random Acts of Flowers, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary this year, repurposes leftover flowers from grocery stores, floral wholesalers and events into bouquets. The organization currently operates in Knoxville, Tennessee; Tampa Bay,  Florida; Chicago and Indianapolis, and asks for a donation in exchange for pickup. Planners can ensure their leftover flowers will brighten someone’s day for as long as possible by being mindful of the types of flowers they purchase for the event. “Hydrangeas are super-popular flowers, but they don’t last,” says Christina Scott Sayer, national director of marketing and communications at Random Acts of Flowers. “If we pick them up from a wedding or event, they will probably end up in compost.” During its 10-year tenure, Random Acts of Flowers has completed more than 340,000 deliveries and has recycled 355,000 vases. In addition to reducing waste, Scott Sayer says planners hoping to plan more sustainable events can achieve a positive human benefit. “We’re purposing vases that would have been put in landfills,” Scott Sayer says. “We have delivered so many bouquets; we’ve delivered flowers every 15 minutes for 10 years. But it’s also the connection between people. When you deliver flowers, you are visiting with someone and having a conversation, and flowers can have an impact on health, healing and improvement. Our mission is a simple one, but it’s impactful.”