The Art of Planning a Food Security Conference



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.

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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 emily@foodsecurity.org. We’d love your help.

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  1. Wednesday, November 17th, 2010
    Andy - thanks for illuminating the deeper challenges. I"m glad this has increased the dialogue in the most positive way. Kudos for your work.
  2. Wednesday, November 17th, 2010
    Hey Andy,

    I agree that planning major events is an imperfect world at best. Making changes where you can, when you can is the only possible option.

    You write: "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."

    You haven't asked them? I view that as the crux of the problem!

    The issue of Sodexo sponsorship also poses a huge question mark for me. As the founder of a nonprofit and a fundraiser, $40,000 does not seem like a whole lot of money. I would think that 2-3 smaller, more socially responsible sponsors (or foundations?) would have been a better option. Not that any corporation is perfect, but your main sponsor was a corporation with practices diametrically opposed to the work you do.

    I also understand wanting to lead a company like Sodexo in the right direction. In fact, it's a personal goal of mine. However I don't think that accepting dollars from them is the right strategy at all. I think graciously rejecting the funds and offering to have a conversation as to why you'd made that choice would have been just as (if not more) effective.

    There's a great anecdote from Lynne Twist in her book "The Soul of Money". In her work as a professional fundraiser she'd accepted a lot of funds from corporations, but there was one check that she just couldn't accept -- not just because of the company's values, but because the person who wrote the check clearly had in mind that the funds would make up for the company's values (or lack thereof).

    She returned the check with a nice note saying that she couldn't, in good conscience, accept the funds for her cause. Years later, this man came back to her to explain that she had been the first person to challenge his company's values in the "language" that made sense to him -- money. It had played a part in turning around how he ran the company.

    We all need to challenge Sodexo (and companies like it) in a language that ::they:: can understand.
  3. Wednesday, November 17th, 2010
    Andy,

    Saying Sodexo is "moving in the right direction" is sort of like saying, "BP now understands the deep water oil drilling business better."

    I have spent a lifetime in struggles with corporate power. Over that time, I have come to understand that unless a corporation can realize either a profit or increased business predictability from a change in practice and values, it will not make fundamental change.

    So what do we do about corporations seeming to want to move in the "right direction" but without taking big steps in that direction? The answer is TRANSPARENCY.

    I propose to you that the Community Food Security Coalition require any institution or corporation making a contribution to the conference or your larger work open their food system books, so to speak, to the conference organizers and the public. With TRANSPARENCY, you and the host committee can ascertain the true intentions of the grant or gift. With TRANSPARENCY, the market forces can operate more efficiently in support of our local food agenda.

    So I can imagine Sodexo saying, "We don't have the information about where we source all our food, how much is organic, how much is local."

    First, if they are serious about their business they do have that information.

    So the real question is, "Are they willing to share it with the group they are seeking to influence." If they aren't, it certainly tells you and us something about their intentions and the appropriateness of taking their money.

    Chris Bedford
  4. Wednesday, November 17th, 2010
    Liz-I should clarify. We havent asked attendees specifically whether they would pay extra for healthy snacks. We have not done a Willingness to pay type survey. We do hear constantly through evaluations and word of mouth that attendees need us to keep the registration fees down. We dropped reg fees for this conference by about $40 to accommodate this desire. On Sodexo, we didnt get $40k from them. (I had to edit the article with this information.) We did have Clif Bar, Organic Valley , the Food bank of NOLA, the Sheraton Hotel, & the Presbyterian Hunger Program as sponsors. I would argue that Sodexo's practices are not diametrically opposed to ours. They are moving aggressively into sourcing local food, which is a practice we wholeheartedly support. As i wrote in the article, they are a contradiction themselves. We all have different ways of approaching power. Our approach has been less confrontational w/ this company, because we see them making positive changes to their practices.
  5. Denise O'Brien
    Thursday, November 18th, 2010
    I appreciate all that has been shared in the posts by Haven and Andy and all the comments following. We live in a world of contradictions and moving forward while retaining integrity is difficult for under funded non profits.

    Discussions around accepting money from those opposed to a non profits values have gone on ad infinitum and I am not sure that this issue will ever be resolved.

    The contradictions reflect the contradictions that we live in every day. I live in the "belly of the beast" - Iowa, you can imagine how difficult it is to remain pure. It is a worthy goal to attempt, but may shut one off from possibilities of changing society.

    Thanks to all of you who have contributed to this discussion.