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!
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.
- #3 is reducing food waste, which would cut CO2 by 70.53 gigatons worldwide
- #4 is adopting a plant-rich diet, which would cut CO2 by 66.11 gigatons worldwide
Combined, these food-related changes could cut 136.64 gigatons of CO2, more than either of the top two solutions (84.6 for producing energy with onshore wind turbines and 89.74 for better handling of gasses used for refrigeration).
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
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. 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, and possibly 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.
I’ll post again after the event to let you know how it went. Often organizations underestimate the demand for vegan options. 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!) For Raleigh Unleashed, I’ll bring a bag of walnuts just in case, plus some vegan cookies to share.
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