These days, when an organization invites me to an event that includes a meal or snacks, I write a letter asking for vegan food and minimal food waste. I write as soon as I get the invitation, so the organizers have time to adjust their plans. See the example exchange below for how to highlight the benefits that serving sustainable food will bring to those in charge. You can use it as a template. It’s a way to make a big difference in just a few minutes!
[Original post 1/1/2020. Updated 10/1/2020.]
Example: How to Ask for Vegan Food at a Conference
I’m on the Raleigh Environmental Advisory Board. Like other Raleigh board members, we have been invited to the Raleigh Unleashed “unconference” next Saturday. The registration page said lunch would be served but did not ask for any dietary preferences. So I sent the organizer the following email, which ties my request to city goals, satisfying participants, lower costs, and improving health.
Subject: Raleigh Unleashed Sustainability Plan
Dear Jason, thank you for your role in coordinating Raleigh Unleashed. I hope you are planning to make it a sustainable event by:
- Serving plant-rich food that is clearly labeled and by avoiding waste. Save any extra food for other meals, donate it to those in need, or compost it.
- Asking participants to bring their water bottles. Provide paper cups for those who forget rather than single-use plastic bottles.
How do these suggestions benefit the event and the City of Raleigh?
1) Eating more plants and wasting less food helps us work toward the city goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% in 2050. See, for example, Project Drawdown ranked 100 changes we can make to reduce global warming. In the top four solutions, depending on how rapidly we deal with the climate crisis, are:
- Reducing food waste, which would cut CO2 by 87 to 95 gigatons worldwide
- Adopting a plant-rich diet, which would cut CO2 by 67 to 92 gigatons worldwide
2) Offering plant-based options means more people can eat, including those who are lactose intolerant, vegetarian, vegan, or watching their cholesterol. Plant-based options bypass many religious concerns, including those about pork and shellfish. Clear labeling helps people make informed decisions.
3) Local, plant-rich meals are better for the City’s budget
- The ingredients for plant-rich meals tend to cost less than those using animal products
- Buying fruits and vegetables from local farmers keeps money in our community and region
- Eating more fruits and vegetables improves employees’ health, which reduces medical bills, insurance costs, and sick days
4) Eating more plants improves nearly everyone’s health
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that in 2018 only 10% of North Carolinians ate enough fruit, and only 8% ate enough vegetables, slightly lower than the national average. The lead author notes that our eating habits put us at risk for serious and costly chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. We’re missing out on the essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber that fruits and vegetables provide.
Please let Raleigh Unleashed lead by example and make a difference! I’m happy to answer questions to help make it a sustainable success.
Linda Watson, a member of the Raleigh Environmental Advisory Board, writing as a private citizen
Jason quickly replied:
Thanks for your note. I’ve cc-ed Damien and Caplan who I’m working with from the City of Raleigh and are planning the food portion of the event.
Yaay! The followup letter sent to participants included a section on the food and beverages provided, including (bolding added):
- Coffee and herbal tea all day
- Boxed lunches containing “a wrap (chicken salad, turkey, grilled vegetables, or roast beef); potato chips; chopped fruit salad; and a chocolate-chip cookie. NOTE: vegetable wrap uses vegan spinach tortilla and substitutes whole fruit for the cookie.”
- Water from the reusable water bottles we are encouraged to bring or from water stations and cups
- Bring your own snacks
I was delighted to see a stack of about 30 boxed vegetarian lunches (which were also vegan). As you can see, the lunches used lots of packaging, including individually wrapped condiment servings. But it was tasty!
I brought cookies from Whole Foods and made a sign saying they were donated by the Pachamama Alliance. I stood by the lunches offering the cookies to people getting a veggie lunch and protecting them from people getting the roast beef or turkey (I assured them that everyone got a cookie). This led to a lot of interesting conversations. I even met to fellow vegans, who were delighted to get lunch and a cookie!
My sign said:
Vegan Cookies courtesy of the Pachamama Alliance
please let those with vegan lunches help themselves first
Project Drawdown ranked 80 known ways to reduce carbon in the atmosphere and reverse global warming.
- #3 is reducing food waste
- #4 is plant-rich diets
Make your next event plant-based by default.
What other solutions can your board support?
bike infrastructure, walkable cities, electric vehicles,
green roofs, rooftop solar, insulation, alternative cement,
smart glass, planting trees, recycling, LED lighting, …
Learn more at Drawdown.org and Pachamama.org/engage/drawdown
Writing a letter like this is well worth your time, even without such positive results. I don’t know how much my note changed the plans that were already in place. If previous Raleigh events are a good guide, Jason and his team added vegan grilled-vegetable wraps to the menu and didn’t order individual plastic water bottles. This could mean dozens of meat-based meals and a hundred or so plastic bottles were not used. Better yet, this exchange could be influence future events. Every letter or comment like this paves the way to a more sustainable future. (Oh yeah, someone mentioned that last time. Let’s see what we can do.) I’m cautiously excited.
On the other hand:
- Ideally, the default meal should be 100% plant-based, like the one above served family-style by the Neomonde, a local Mediterranean deli. People with special dietary needs can ask for alternatives as vegans and vegetarians do now. It would also be served buffet style with reusable plates, cutlery, and napkins.
- No sustainable event should serve the top three food sources of greenhouse gases: lamb, beef, or cheese.
- That’s a lot of wasteful packaging: a box for each lunch, a bag for each handful of chips, a cup for the fruit salads, individual condiment servings, and plastic wrap for each wrap and cookie.
- Boxed lunches lead to wasted food. Some people don’t want the pickles, little bags of mustard, chips, or even cookies. Cutlery and napkins usually come in the box for faster serving, but this nixes the benefit of bringing a travel dining kit.
- The plant-based meal should include a dessert. Why not serve everyone the tasty vegan chocolate-chip cookies from Whole Foods, for example? Weaver Street Market makes terrific vegan cupcakes (their chocolate and vanilla cakes are vegan by default.) The omnivores would not notice. The vegans wouldn’t be deprived of dessert or made to stand out. Chefs, feel free to use one of my recipes for brownies or carrot-spice cookies.
The convention center put the veggie wraps between the two meat choices, so everyone seemed to get what they wanted. Sometimes the omnivores get there first, leaving the vegans with a stack of roast-beef sandwiches. For example, the photo below shows how the vegan and vegetarian lunches went first at The People’s Summit in 2017. I joined a hoard of hungry vegans asking the catering staff for something to eat at our isolated conference center. (Alas, we were unsuccessful, and the Starbucks wasn’t any help. But that was 2017!) Now I always bring food just in case, such as a bag of walnuts, a power bar, and cookies to share!
You may also want to ask restaurants for plant-based food. Here’s a letter template to get you started.
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