Having the word sustainability in their name predisposes the Philadelphia-based Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education to look for ways to incorporate green practices in its event planning. Over the past two years, the group also has been saving money and helping attendees stay healthy by going meatless on Mondays at its annual Conference & Expo, an act that also can minimize water usage, reduce greenhouse gases and reduce fuel dependence. Held in Baltimore this past October, the event hosted more than 2,000 sustainability officers who work for universities and colleges.
"It's a big hit __ our attendees really liked it," says Kimberly Smith, right, the association's director of conferences and events. "People are more health conscious, and they want to continue it at our conference. Of course, everyone is very aware about sustainability. They expect to see us follow it through. We have to set the standard for them."
Profiles show that 25 to 30 percent of AASHE attendees are lactose-intolerant, vegan, vegetarian and/or glucose-intolerant, so eliminating meat protein also makes planning for this segment easier. "This is a no-brainer for us," notes Smith. "If I do a plant-based diet, I'm covering all of those bases." She shares the menu with the crowd beforehand, just in case someone is allergic to one of the ingredients.
One stumbling block: Choosing to go as healthy as possible leads to upcharges. "Any time you mention the word organic, the caterers tell you it's going to cost more," cautions Smith. "Suppliers need to have a better understanding that this is the way of life now and not see it as a place to make money. Attendees are going to start mandating that meetings have healthy menus."
After being told a quart of soy milk would cost her $32, the back and forth for this year's event got heavy. "We got it down to about half that, but $16 is still expensive," Smith says. "We'll never do that again. The contract for catering was signed two days before the show because we were haggling on the pricing!"
Making sure this won't happen again, the AASHE is saying goodbye to catering guarantees. "You really have to fight for it. I fought for it," says Smith. "It was so expensive, we considered giving attendees Visa gift cards to go get food on their own if I couldn't get the caterer to come down and bring in the food to our standards. That will be forever now a part of my arsenal. If they insist on charging these exorbitant fees, we won't sign contracts that require us to spend a certain amount on food and beverage."
Next year's event is in San Antonio, and there's no F&B guarantee in that contract. And while ingredients for the organization's events already comprise locally sourced, sustainable and organic foods, next year the entire menu is going to be vegetarian. "It's much more sustainable and easier for us," Smith notes. "I think that is the way menus are going to go in the future for meetings."
Here's what the AASHE served for breakfast and lunch on Meatless Monday:
Egg white breakfast sandwich with vegan cheese, peppers and onions
Tuscan black kale and shaved radicchio salad with onions, yellow and red grape tomatoes, organic quinoa and toasted almonds, with red wine vinaigrette or oil and vinegar
Grilled vegetable wellington with wild mushroom and white-bean ragout