It was an inspired idea to divert hundreds of pounds of chicken salad and other prepared foods from the 2020 Arnold Sports Festival, at the Greater Columbus Convention Center (GCCC), where spectators were barred and an expo was canceled on March 2, to Nashville, where a deadly tornado struck that day. Just two days after the cancellation announcement, the GCCC convention center food services team, managed by Levy, was able to reroute more than a ton of fresh food to Nashville, where it fed more than 2,000 victims and first responders.
But, quick thinking aside, it was the already established commitment to donate food on the part of convention center, and networks provided by local connections that made it happen. Most convention centers and stadiums where Levy’s provides catering services already work local partners and volunteers to donate leftover food after events — the Levy team at the GCCC reached out to the Levy team at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, where a local nonprofit and partner, Food Rescue US, helped deliver the food along with Levy team members.
It is a story that is repeating itself in conventions centers all over the country: tons and tons of food has been redirected to those who are in need, using networks that were already in place long before the coronavirus outbreak. At the Raleigh Convention Center, for example, 800 banquet-ready meals went to two local nonprofits and a local church to support individuals who are homeless or are food-insecure, after a small conference and an unnamed entertainment company canceled their scheduled conferences early this month. The Centerplate team at the Raleigh Convention Center “[has] a longstanding relationship year-round with several charities in the region,” and both organizations whose events were canceled, including Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, requested that the food be donated, noted spokesperson Sarah Bruckner.
Such local connections are key to making the food donations work, said Scott Swiger, vice president of culinary excellence at Spectra, an international venue management and food services & hospitality company, which has been working with its properties across North America to identify opportunities for food recovery, donating into the local community or among part-time staff. It is not an effort that can be managed in the same way at every venue, Swiger said. “Convention centers, by their nature, are heavily tied into the local communities and cities may have a partnership and or different groups.”
But in places where there aren’t already existing relationships with partners, Spectra frequently works with the Food Recovery Network (FRN), to help them find places to make donations, Swiger said.
The partnership between Spectra and the Food Recovery Network started with a phone call between Swiger and the nonprofit’s executive director, Regina Anderson, Anderson told Convene. “He just called one day and asked, “Can I add you to my list of local resources?’” Anderson recalled.
It is a great fit, she said — like Spectra, FRN is active in multiple locations, and FRN’s network, led by local student-led chapters, is very flexible. FRN was founded by college students in 2011 to donate usable food from their campus dining halls to those who were in need. Since then, the student-led network has redistributed 4 million pounds of food, Anderson said, most of it “using school vans or bicycles — a carload of food at a time.” Six years ago, FRN recognized created a second program, Food Recovery Network Verified, (FRNV), to help venues like convention centers and hotels redirect large quantities of food, she said.
FRNV is connected directly to the national office and network, Anderson said, but is equipped to handle larger quantities of food, including more than 35,000 pounds of food recovered following the 2020 Winter Fancy Food Show, held last January by Specialty Food Association (SFA) at the Moscone Center is San Francisco. More than 125 FRNV volunteers helped make sure the food went to the nonprofit Delancey Street Foundation.
From Swiger’s perspective, one of the advantages of FRNV’s network is that they can also help redirect relatively smaller amount of foods — one or two pallets worth — that still might be overwhelming to small nonprofits, he said. “FRN is able to step in, and through their national reach, they know who the different players are in each market, and also can help get the product there.”
Recently, with events canceled, executive chefs and sous chefs in Spectra-operated convention center kitchen, “not only are, donating the product, they’re getting the products to local places themselves, and many of them are … then going to help shelters or food banks to prepare the food, getting it out to the public,” Swiger said. “Food recovery is something that we do all year round,” he added. “This is a time of need, and we really stepped it up a little bit.”
A partial list of convention centers where SPECTRA has redirected perishable food to those in need:
Utah Valley Convention Center; Provo, Utah
Delivered all perishables to the Food and Care Coalition of Provo, Utah.
Gaillard Center; Charleston, South Carolina
Donated food from a cancelled event went to My Sisters House, which provides shelter for women and children who are in abusive relationships.
Owensboro Convention Center; Kentucky
Donated all produce and dairy products to local Daniel Pitino and St. Benedict shelters.
Atlantic City Convention Center/Boardwalk Hall; New Jersey
Donated all perishables from to the Salvation Army, AC Rescue Mission and the Boys club of America.
Bethel Woods; Bethel, New York
Bethel did a drop of food two local fire departments who volunteer here for our season. (Their normal “Thank You” banquet to kick of the season was canceled.)
Ocean Center, Dayton Beach, Florida
Scheduled pick-ups for community organizations
Columbus Convention & Trade Center; Columbus, Georgia
Donated produce to SafeHouse Ministries.
Barbara Palmer is deputy editor at Convene.
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