Green is Good

Every weekend, across the country, vending stands are set up in public parks or parking lots, filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, humanely raised meat and dairy, and grains, breads, flowers, even textiles, all of which were cultivated on nearby farms.

This is the setting for any of the 3,700 farmers' markets that are the sole source of livelihood for some 19,000 small farmers across the country. Increasingly, mixed in with the local residents browsing among the stalls are also quite a few food and beverage directors and hotel chefs, doing what they call "marketing"—looking for the freshest locally grown seasonal ingredients to incorporate into their group menus.

Interest in locally grown and even organic foods is moving rapidly from specialty niche to the consumer mainstream and it's carving a similar path through the meetings industry. Once consigned to smaller, special-interest or high-end groups, menus derived from local ingredients grown by environmentally-minded producers are an increasingly common find at meetings of all sizes, from incentives to conventions.

You are What You Eat
"People are more interested in knowing where their food comes from," says Julie Reed, marketing and communications manager for the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, OR. The Oregon Convention Center is one of two convention centers nationwide that currently offer menus based on locally grown ingredients. "The farmers' market movement here is thriving. Urban folks are clamoring for really fresh, locally grown produce," says Reed. The numbers bear out her observations. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of farmers' markets in this country increased by more than 111 percent in the decade between 1994 and 2004.

"Especially with E. coli, mad cow disease, and those kinds of things, people want to know where their beef and chicken are coming from," says Amy Spatrisano, principal in the Portland, OR-based meeting planning firm Meeting Strategies Worldwide, which specializes in green meetings. "And while, for obvious reasons, our environmental clients are doing this, other clients in other industries are discovering this and starting to ask for it a lot more." Peter Edwards, group dining executive chef at the Ojai Valley Resort & Spa in Ojai, CA, has also noticed a greater interest in his kitchen's locally grown ingredients. "People are much more aware of what they're eating," he says. "Grass-fed beef is a good example. It's become more of an interest to people who just a few years ago had no idea that there was a difference between grass-fed and corn-fed cattle." And Edwards thinks this burgeoning interest in menu origins is here to stay. "This is not just a trend, but a phase we're moving into agriculturally."

Growing Consensus
There are lots of arguments in favor of using locally grown ingredients in meetings menus. "It's great product, it's good for the environment, and good for the future. Besides that, it's healthier for humans, it cuts down on the damage caused by the transportation of the food—both economically and to the environment—and it puts money into the local community," says Nancy Wilson, Meeting Strategies Worldwide's founder. "It's about sustainability, and having as little impact on the environment as we can," says Mark Wallace, director of sales and marketing with ARAMARK for the Anaheim Convention Center near Los Angeles, the other convention center with a group menu built on locally grown ingredients. "So for us, using local products and produce makes more sense than shipping things in from Hawaii and Asia."

Beyond the greater principles involved, chefs say these ingredients yield a higher-quality meal than their mass-produced counterparts. "The products from the local farms have more powerful flavor contents than mass-produced products," says Ojai's Edwards. And planners say locally based menus help to differentiate the meal and, by extension, the entire event. For David Levine, senior vice president of San Francisco-based ARCS Commercial Mortgage Corporation, such a menu played a crucial role in a recent customer function. "The whole idea in getting customers together is that you really want to make sure you leave a positive impression and do something unique," he says. "And great food is really important." So for his event, Levine featured a locally based food and wine pairing menu, matching fresh, local ingredients with regional wines.

"The food tastes better. Where we were able to get the highest amount of local ingredients into the menu, there was very little food left over," says Spatrisano about one event she planned at a convention center. "Normally, in a convention center, the food is not the thing that people write home about. In fact, if they're going to complain about something, it's usually going to be the food. But at that event, not a single evaluation form—not one—had a single negative thing to say about the food." And these menus are equally popular with the chefs. "Any chef who can afford to do this, to work with the growers, if he or she had a choice, he or she would do it," says Ojai's Edwards. "It's a great advantage."

It's also an advantage for an organization's public image. "Some people really want to demonstrate that they're supporting local farmers" when they bring shows to the Oregon Convention Center, says Brendan Coffey, general manager of ARAMARK there. "We've produced grids for people showing how many dollars they've spent locally."

Tomato, Tomahto
Everyone has a different perspective on what constitutes locally grown or organic food. So it's best to communicate openly with the client and define everyone's expectations. "Get clarity with the client on what they mean by sustainable, because it means something a little bit different to everyone, and different parts of the country are at different stages of the evolution in terms of environmental and sustainable practices," says Oregon Convention Center's Reed. She recalls one group that required all the food served at the event be grown within 50 miles of the convention center, and that any seafood served had to be line-caught, rather than farm-raised, and from a species that is in plentiful supply. "Those were their requirements for what they considered sustainable," she says. When Anaheim's Wallace hosted the Organic Trade Council, that group required not only all locally grown food, but also all organic. The matter is further confused because organic does not, in every case, mean better for the environment. "You always have to ask: If you fly organic produce in from Chile, is it really saving anything?" asks Oregon's Coffey. "You have to find that balance. Which is better? Local, or organic from the other side of the world?"

Does Size Matter?
Using locally grown ingredients to feed large groups of people does introduce new challenges, including accommodating the sheer number of mouths to feed. "Sourcing can be tough," says Meeting Strategies' Wilson. "One large conference can knock out one farmer's entire spinach crop for the year." So it's best to get a head start. "Because it's sometimes hard to find large quantities, the key is to start sourcing early," says Oregon's Coffey.

To Spatrisano, that means beginning discussions as early as possible. "These are conversations you should be having at that first site visit," she says. When she planned the U.S. Green Building Council's annual conference at the Oregon Convention Center last year, she began working with the site on the proposed menu 18 months before the show date. "They talked to their purveyors and let them know ahead of time that a large group was coming in. When you're feeding 5,000 people over four to five days, that amount of food could pretty much buy out a whole farm's inventory right there and then. Starting early allows you to split between purveyors, and to build an ongoing relationship."

And as the trend grows, so does the feasibility of sourcing these ingredients, even in convention centers, where economies of scale and matters of efficiency are top concerns. "In the past two years, the interest in this has really been picking up, primarily with green groups, of which we've got quite a few in Oregon," says Coffey. Relationships with local suppliers make it possible to handle the larger groups. "We have no problem getting these ingredients for groups as large as 10,000 people," says Anaheim's Wallace.

The Price You Pay
As the saying goes, you get what you pay for, and that adage applies to locally grown and organic produce. "The only obstacle is price," says Sarah Bowman, executive chef at the Miramonte Resort & Spa in Indian Wells, CA, who specializes in the use of local ingredients. But many say that starting early can also help with this concern. "To optimize pricing, start working on the menu early, and be flexible about what it contains so that the chef has the ability to use what's in season," recommends Sa-ptrisano. "If you pick something straight off the normal menu rather than letting the chef work around what's available, you're less likely to get a good deal."

The convention centers that offer menus built around local ingredients concede that the prices are slightly higher. "The only obstacle we had [with the locally grown menu] was the increase in pricing that we had to pass on to the customer," says Anaheim's Wallace, where the locally grown menu is the only one that's offered, unless a group specifically requests a less expensive option. "Although it's still new, we haven't had any groups that have had big issues with it. You have to pay a price if you want to have an event that has a limited impact on the environment, and most of our corporate clients are 100 percent behind that."