Growing Appetite for Local Ingredients on Event Menus

Author: Jennifer N. Dienst       


Harvest, a new retail concept in the Orange County Convention Center’s food court C, plucks its menu items straight from the center’s own Center-To-Table Gardens.

Editor’s note: Renowned anthropologist Dr. Jane Goodall has said of the climate crisis, “What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” With that in mind, we are dedicating the November/December edition of Convene fully — our first single-topic issue — to the climate crisis, and what the business events industry is doing to address this global challenge. Find stories from the Climate Issue here, and read our cover story, “A ‘Watershed Moment’ for Events — and the World.”

Event venues are reporting a renewed interest in where a venue’s food comes from — and the closer it is to the kitchen, the better.

“What’s come out of it is — ‘I want local. I want to meet the farmer. I want to be there when the food is prepared, I want to be there when it’s picked and when it’s brought to the kitchen and when the chef starts to use it,’” said Molly Crouch, director of sustainability at Sodexo Live!, the exclusive F&B provider for Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center (OCCC).

In 2016, the OCCC partnered with Urban Smart Farms to build and run the Center-To-Table Gardens, which spans more than 2,000 square feet in its Westwood Lobby. Its 88 towers now produce up to 7,000 plants — including a variety of lettuces, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and herbs. The project has since expanded to include Harvest, a new retail concept in OCCC’s food court C, whose menu is plucked straight from those gardens.

“It speaks to what the chef is trying to do,” Crouch said, adding that it also coincides with a recent shift in requests for more creative, healthier menu options. Of the 130-plus groups the OCCC has hosted since July 2020, Crouch also has noticed more of an interest in healthy, local items that also make a visual impact.

“I don’t think they cared that much before about that,” she added. “I think they just wanted to make sure it tasted good and that their attendees would like it. They’ve now put more art into the food.”

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Diet for a Healthy Planet

Sourcing local ingredients not only supports good health and a community’s economy, it’s also better for the environment. A University of Waterloo blog post breaks it down:

The main environmental benefit of sourcing local ingredients is that it reduces “food miles.” That refers to the distance that food travels to reach your plate. The more food miles it takes to transport food, the more fossil fuels are burned, allowing more harmful greenhouse gas emissions to be released into the atmosphere. Aside from the fuel consumption and pollution, transporting foods far distances also can require refrigeration, which consumes energy.

Buying local food also can help protect local land and wildlife. When farmers are compensated well for their products, they are less likely to sell their land to be redeveloped for industrial, commercial, or residential use. In addition, smaller, local farms tend to keep their products organic, preservative- and pesticide-free. By not using harmful toxins, local farmers help prevent water and air pollution.

And lastly, by lessening the amount of time it takes from picking produce to prepping it in the kitchen, you reduce the possibility of spoilage — and avoid potential food waste.

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For further information on the environmental and social reasons for buying locally sourced food, read “Ten Reasons to Buy Local Food” from the University of Vermont.


Jennifer N. Dienst is managing editor at Convene.

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