Last week, Haven Bourque published an article here on Civil Eats about the contradictions she found at the recent Community Food Security Coalition conference in New Orleans. While she found the conference to be very informative and a great networking opportunity, she also noted that the presence of junk food at snack times and Sodexo’s sponsorship appeared to be contradictory to CFSC’s values.
As the Executive Director of CFSC, and the responsible party for some 20 conferences over the past 13 years, I was keenly interested in her comments. After reading her article, I soon realized that the contradictions at our conference are a reflection of the contradictions that our organization faces in society in general. We operate the conference in the context of a travel/meeting industry dominated by and tailored toward the needs of large corporations. This industry, like the rest of the country, is serviced by a highly concentrated industrial food system, grounded in convenience and commodification. Our organization and our constituency do not share these values and typically do not have the same resources as the other clients of this meeting industry. Thus, we are forced to make compromises and adjustments to make the event work. Let me explain.
First we have made the decision to move the event around the country from year to year, to allow people from many communities to attend. We also decided not to hold the conference in the summer because it is peak season for many of our members. The implications of these decisions are as follows:
- We have to re-invent the event every year, with a different site and new host committee.
- A strong local host committee that sources local food, plans field trips and much more is an absolute prerequisite.
- With attendees flying in from all over the country, accessibility and affordability are key. Cheap flights and short drives from airport to meeting site are essentials.
- Nearby restaurants, cafes or other attractions are a plus, so attendees without vehicles are not stuck without choices.
- The facility itself must meet our space requirements for 1000 people and there needs to be adequate lodging nearby. They must be willing to work with us on serving local food.
All of these criteria limit both the possible communities in which we can hold the event, as well as the venues within those communities. In Des Moines (the 2009 conference site), we had only one option. In New Orleans (the 2010 site), we had four options: the Hilton, Sheraton, Crowne Plaza, or the Marriott.
Shifting gears from site to finances, the conference is a zero-sum game. We subsidize the event heavily with grants to cover staff time, but we typically break even. Expenditures need to be recouped by registration fees, corporate sponsorships, and the occasional grant or individual donation.
This brings us to one of the contradictions that Haven raised: corporate sponsorships. She commented that Sodexo’s sponsorship of our event is contradictory to the purpose of the event. Instead, I would argue that Sodexo is itself a contradiction: a multi-national company increasingly committed to serving local food, with some great practices and others not so commendable. It is a fair question to ask, though, whether their fiduciary responsibility to their stockholders will allow them to adopt truly sustainable triple bottom line practices. What is indisputable is that Sodexo holds a lot of power. They can, through one fell swoop of policy–and a lot of implementation headaches–establish farm to cafeteria programs at thousands of schools, colleges, hospitals and workplaces. This power is what makes a partnership with them attractive to CFSC.
For the New Orleans event, we raised slightly less than $40,000 in corporate sponsorships. This income meant we didn’t need as much revenue from registration fees. Sponsorships enabled us to reduce registration fees by about $70 per person. Since our target audience tends to come from organizations or communities without a lot of money, we often find ourselves in a balancing act between ensuring a high quality event and keeping registration fees low.
We work hard to walk our talk and incorporate as much local food into the event as possible. As anyone who has done this work before knows, there can be challenges: the chef might not be very flexible about menus or sourcing; not knowing head counts until 10 days before the event makes procurement planning difficult; acquiring food donations from local businesses can be hit or miss. We’re frequently back-filling, adjusting, tweaking, and running around. All of this can be even more challenging on a budget. Local meals can require more labor for the hotel in managing multiple deliveries, keeping product separate from their normal stocks, as well as increased prep time. They’re loath to reduce their prices too much, in part because food and beverage is a big profit center for them.
We could have perfect food at every conference: local, organic, humanely raised, union labor, assuming it’s available. But, at what cost? In New Orleans, we asked the food bank to get us donations for the snacks so we could save some money. They put out candy and Nutri-grain bars, which is what was donated to them. Less than ideal? Yes. But, serving real food would have meant having to raise registration fees $15-$20/person. Is it worth that amount to registrants? I don’t know. We haven’t asked them.
Because we operate in a world in which candy is cheaper than healthy food, social justice organizations have a lot less disposable income than corporations, and community-oriented convention centers are not as prevalent as swanky corporate hotels, and because as an organization we have our own limitations in time, staffing and fundraising capabilities, we make adjustments, compromises, and mistakes.
We’re looking at holding our Spring 2012 Farm to Cafeteria conference in Burlington VT and our Annual Conference in the Fall in the DC area. If you know of any venues in those areas that are accessible, can hold 800-1000 people, have affordable sleeping rooms nearby, and are willing to serve local food, send an email to our conference planner, Emily Becker at email@example.com. We’d love your help.