How sustainable can you make a conference with 500 attendees?

Hannah Leighton, Director of Research and Evaluation

It takes a lot of resources to host 500 people for three days. They eat and drink (food, napkins, silverware, water glasses). They take notes (paper, pencils). They wear nametags and look at programs. They move around (cars, shuttles). Not to mention the resources that got them there in the first place (marketing, printing). Is there a way to plan a high-quality, productive conference while using fewer resources? That was our challenge at this April's New England Farm to Institution Summit, a three-day conference at UMass Amherst, which brought together 500 leaders from across the country (all six New England states plus 14 more).

We learned a lot. While some of our targets were easily met, others proved to be surprisingly difficult, and others were challenging even to track. Read on to learn more about our experience. You can also read our full sustainability policy here

Food Procurement Goals

  1. Procure 50% of all food and beverage and 100% of all meat protein (including poultry and seafood), dairy, grains, oats, greens, and eggs from New England farms and businesses

  2. Reduce meat options by using meat as a side dish or flavoring ingredient and not as a main ingredient. Limit red meat and poultry portions to two ounces per serving 

  3. Provide opportunities for engagement and education

  4. Source menu items from underrepresented producers 

We were particularly excited to work with UMass on these efforts because they are already putting a lot of effort into their local and sustainable procurement practices. We knew that they would be eager to collaborate with us in a way that would help us meet our goals while also pushing themselves. "We try to source as much locally as we can on a daily basis, however this was a different experience", says UMass Amherst Dining Executive Chef Bob Bankert, "April is basically the hardest month to source local produce in our area, so a lot of our menus are supplemented with non local vegetables. For this conference though, the goal was to source as much locally as possible, meaning we had to serve sweet potatoes, butternut squash, and carrots in a variety of ways over the course of the three days. Luckily we live in a region that has an abundance of local foods to offer. Meats, dairy, flours, etc., are all being produced in New England: it’s a matter of building connections and relationships with farmers and purveyors and thinking outside of the box."

With the help of Chef Bob and his team, we exceeded our 50% goal and procured 83% of the total food and beverage (by value) from the six New England states! Because this was our first effort tracking regional purchases at an event, we focused on geography and we did not consider the size or ownership structure of the producer, as many institutional standards do. That being said, if a product came from a regional company that was unable to track the location of their ingredients because of their size or structure, we did not count that product as regional. For example, while the milk came from a regional cooperative, we were unable to confirm the original location and thus did not count it towards our target. It should also be noted that our measurement does not include beer, wine, or tea as we were unable to track the quantities used for the Summit. While we do know that the majority of beer and wine served came from regional producers, this is something we plan to track more closely in the future. 

Chalkboard displaying local foods featured at the summitMeat protein (including poultry and seafood), eggs, and oats were relatively easy to procure regionally (99%, 100%, 100% procured regionally, respectively). These products are available year-round, and UMass already sources them from regional producers at significant volume. As mentioned above, we did not count milk towards our regional dairy purchases, which impacted our overall percentage (74% procured regionally). All salad greens came from Little Leaf Farms in Devens, Massachusetts, and lēf Farms in Loudon, New Hampshire. Cooking greens like kale and spinach came from outside the region (68% of total greens procured regionally). All bread was made at the UMass bakery, using 50% local flour and 50% non-local flour. As such, we counted 50% of bread purchases toward our target (53% procured regionally). 

Since animal protein is generally more resource-intensive and environmentally impactful than plant-based foods, we challenged our chefs to reduce the total amount of animal protein (not including seafood) served. Instead of the customary 8oz. portion, we provided high quality, regionally sourced meat in 2oz. portions (with the exception of one meal where whole chickens were broken down into 2oz. - 4oz. portions). 

In an effort to engage more deeply with New England producers, we invited growers who provided food for the Summit to join us for lunch. The local dogfish lunch that day was sponsored by Red’s Best, and was accompanied by a discussion about the importance of seafood in New England’s food system with Jared Auerbach of Red’s Best, Chef Bob Bankert of UMass Dining, and Doug Feeney of Chatham Harvesters Cooperative. We also partnered with UMass on the final morning of the Summit to serve a cool climate breakfast that highlighted low carbon and regenerative growing practices. The meal was followed by a session led by sustainability leaders at UMass. In the future, we plan to look for even more ways to highlight food production at the Summit, including providing more opportunities for participants to engage with the farmers who grew the food served at the event. 

We were not able to place the emphasis we would have liked to on sourcing from farms and food businesses operated by people of color, women, and beginning farmers. Because UMass already sources from many regional producers, we chose to work with those vendors that already have a relationship with dining services. And because UMass does not currently track these demographics from their producers, it was challenging to know if we met this goal. In the future, this is something we will want to start thinking about earlier so we can either collect the necessary data or contact/onboard additional growers. 

Waste Goals

  1. Eliminate plastic water bottles and single-use beverage containers

  2. Divert pre- and post-consumer food waste by collecting dietary preferences in advance, and by donating, repurposing, or composting

  3. Make 100% of the cups, plates, silverware, and napkins reusable

Two attendees seated at a table with reusable bottlesAll pack lists sent to attendees included "reusable water bottle" and "thermos" and registrants were told in advance that there would be zero plastic water bottles served at the Summit. We also included this information on various pages of the Summit website. A survey of registrants showed that 78% of attendees brought their own reusable water bottle or thermos! While we did not serve any single use water bottles, we were not able to avoid single-use containers at the cocktail reception where we chose to serve local beers in cans over having a non-local keg. We were not able to track the amount of cans sold and this is something we will want to track more closely in the future so we can evaluate the impact of those materials. 

UMass has a tiered system for handling food waste. All dining areas on campus follow this system where any food that meets food safety requirements gets repurposed or donated and anything remaining is composted. By serving food buffet-style and waiting to refill trays until they were nearly empty, we were able to cut back on post-consumer waste and reuse much of the leftover food. In fact, we repurposed almost all of the leftover food from the first two days to create an upcycled meal on day three. We also collected dietary preferences ahead of the Summit to avoid ordering excess food. 

Cups, plates, silverware, and napkins were all reusable. (Exception: for 20 minutes on the first morning, compostable cups and spoons were accidentally put out at the coffee station alongside reusable mugs and reusable spoons.) So we can confidently say that 100% of cups, plates, silverware, and napkins were either reusable or compostable. In the future, we will communicate more closely with catering. One interesting takeaway: we observed that many chose the compostable cup over the mug, even though most people were scheduled to spend the whole day in that building. Once the compostable cups were removed, people seamlessly switched over to mugs. This aligns with existing research that suggests people are drawn to the convenience of to-go materials even if not necessary, but will easily adapt if offered another option. 

Transportation Goals 

  1. 100% of participants use an alternative form of transportation (including carpooling) at least once during the Summit

  2. 100% of workshops and Summit events will be located within walking distance of the Campus Center

  3. Provide enough on-site lodging for all attendees

  4. Provide transportation for any off-site field trips 

  5. Promote the use of carpools, rideshares apps, the local PVTA and regional Peter Pan bus systems, and the Valley Bike Share program

A survey at registration showed that 41 percent of registrants used alternative transportation/carpooled to get to the Summit. While our goal was for 100% of participants to use alternative transportation at least once throughout the Summit, we chose to measure this metric instead because we could build it into the sign-in process. In the future, we plan to look more closely at how to track carpooling/alternative transportation as well as the environmental impact of taking a certain number of cars off the road. 

A bulletin board on the summit website and at the registration table offered information on public transportation and several attendees took advantage of our page on to find a carpool buddy ahead of the Summit. While we believe we were able to reduce travel miles over the three days by hosting the Summit at UMass where all events were centrally located and lodging was available, we received a number of comments in our post-event survey about the lack of public transportation available to get to and from Amherst. We plan to weigh this trade-off carefully when choosing future venues. 

Marketing Material Goals

  1. Create a name tag that doubles as an abbreivated program

  2. Replace full printed program with online app

  3. Create reusable lanyards 

  4. Purchase 100% of marketing materials with New England-based businesses

  5. Reduce tote bag use 

  6. Use recycled and reusable materials for marketing 

Four female conference attendees wearing nametag/mini-programsRather than print 500 full programs, each attendee received a 3.5x5 dual name tag/program that consisted of essential logistics and scheduling information. In addition to reducing the amount of paper and ink used, these name tags also eliminated the need for a plastic sleeve. Recognizing that attendees would want access to a full program with session descriptions and bios, we launched an app using Cvent where more information could easily be found. Presenters were able to share session handouts and presentations digitally, reducing our paper use further, and participants were able to build their own schedule, share contact information with new connections, and find their way around the conference using maps and other directions all within the app. “Using a mobile event app was a new venture for us at the 2019 summit", says FINE's Event and Project Manager Dana Stevens. "The app allowed us to provide more relevant and up-to-date information about the summit program to our participants, and participants were able to interact with one another and summit content in a dynamic way. We eliminated the need to print a full color program, as well as supplemental materials like program corrections and attendee lists as we have in the past."

At many events, sponsorship packages are designed to include logo printing on name tag lanyards. While our original sponsorship proposal included this option, we chose to remove this offering so that lanyards could be repurposed for future events. Participants were encouraged to drop their lanyards off on their way out to be reused. 

At past Summits, we have handed each attendee a Summit tote bag with a program and other relevant materials inside. Because we did not have a printed program in 2019, we chose to make the tote bags optional. We recognize the allure of a new tote bag but also know that they can pile up so we offered a drop off station for attendees to bring old tote bags to be donated to the Bagshare Project for repurposing. We hope to continue engaging with the Bagshare Project so this can become a more valuable resource for event attendees. 

All materials printed ahead of the Summit were printed at Silver Screen Design in Greenfield, MA and Minuteman Press in Brattleboro, VT. Ahead of the Summit, staff prioritized printing on recycled paper with environmentally friendly inks. We reduced the size of marketing materials, printed fewer copies, and made efforts to reduce the number of signs with date-specific information so they could be reused. During the Summit itself, we found it challenging to keep track of last-minute print jobs and we are eager to develop systems for tracking our overall paper use in the future.

So was it a Sustainable Summit?

We are incredibly proud of the efforts we made to be sustainable at the 2019 New England Farm to Institution Summit. We also know there are many ways we can improve for next time and we look forward to continuing this conversation with many of you. If you have any recommendations for how we can prioritize sustainability in our future events, we want to hear from you! Please leave us a comment below or email

Goals for 2021 and Beyond

  • Identify more opportunities for attendees to engage with producers who provided food for the Summit
  • Identify strategies for purchasing from underrepresented producers and tracking those purchases 
  • Better understand the impact of single use cans and plan accordingly when purchasing local beer for receptions
  • Better understand the impact of location on transportation: availability of public transportation to location vs transit needs during conference 
  • Develop more extensive evaluation of transportation methods so we can better understand the impact of carpooling/using alternative transportation 
  • Work with sponsors and others donating product to the Summit to make sure they know about our sustainability goals 



A special thanks to our Summit Sustainability Committee, who worked hard in the months leading up to the summit: Emily Chiara (UMass Amherst), Kaitlin Haskins (FINE), Chris Howland (UMass Amherst), Hannah Leighton (FINE), and John Stoddard (Health Care Without Harm). We worked closely with event partners at UMass Amherst to make sure our goals were aspirational yet reasonable, and UMass supported us as we set up evaluation systems for measuring success.