by Sarah J.F. Braley | May 01, 2011

When the Green Meetings Industry Council held its annual Sustainable Meetings Conference in February at the Doubletree Hotel Portland in Oregon, 250 people spent three days talking about eco-friendly events, and 90 pounds of leftover food were delivered to local organizations for distribution. The donation, which represented just 5.76 ounces of food per attendee, provided full meals for about 40 hungry people.

Given the scope of the meetings industry, consider how many more could be fed -- and waste avoided -- if all meetings had such a plan in place. Because those donations really are needed.In 2010 alone, the Community FoodBank of New Jersey delivered 37 million pounds of food. That number was 61 percent higher than the 23 million pounds the organization gave out in 2008, representing a growing trend of giving -- along with a growing need.

Clearly, more planners are trying to put their leftovers to good use. Last year, the FoodBank received 127,000 pounds of goods from 12 food shows held in the Garden State. "The donations ranged from 632 pounds collected at a specialty show to 47,000 pounds from the Wakefern Food Corp. [operator of ShopRite and Price­Rite supermarkets]," says Tim Vogel, director of food sourcing for the food bank. Vogel monitors the calendars of local convention centers, scouting for events to approach for donations. "We're open to any show that's going to have food for us," he stresses. "I would definitely be interested in taking leftovers from a banquet."

Liability issues For some, concern about food safety and liability is a deterrent. However, in 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which protects anyone donating food in good faith from criminal or civil liability.

While most states also have similar laws, they might have slightly different nuances, so it's wise to examine the ordinances in place in your destination, suggests Philadelphia-based hospitality attorney Joshua Grimes. "However, the federal act will preempt any state law that is weaker than the federal law, so the Emerson Act can serve as a baseline to guide planners on food-donation protections."

Even with such protections in place, however, many hotels will not sign on to a donation program, citing liability concerns. "We've found a lot of hotels do not donate excess food," says Sarah Corradino, CMP, senior manager of meetings and events for the Professional Convention Management Association in Chicago. "The Good Samaritan Act is meant to protect everyone, but [the hotels] come back and say, for legal reasons, they don't do that."

Pressing the point PCMA's annual meeting, Convening Leaders, was held in January at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, from which the extra food was donated to a local pig farm. "It's a green initiative," says Corradino, "but it was not a facility that serves people."

Attorney Grimes says hotels and caterers might rightfully cite their insurance policies, not the law, as the reason to refuse to donate. "This can be a valid reason," he says. "But sometimes the hotels never really ask their insurer about ways in which donations might be done safely without violating their coverage. Planners wishing to press the issue might want to ask the hotel to verify that their insurer will not allow donations under any circumstances."

As a fallback, he adds, planners can sign an indemnification provision to the meeting contract absolving the hotel from liability for any illness or other problem that might arise as a result of the donation. "Planners just need to be certain that their own insurance will cover that risk."

On the other hand, a number of major convention facilities, including the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, the Las Vegas Convention Center and the Oregon Convention Center, have food-donation programs in place through their catering companies -- Levy Restaurants for the BCEC and Aramark for the other two -- making it simple planners to OK the distribution of their groups' leftovers.