Reharvest Memphis: How to Host a Low-Waste High-Impact Event
Clean Memphis hosted its annual event, Reharvest Memphis, for more than 180 people at a local brewery, featuring food items that might otherwise have gone to waste.
Note: this blog features a guest author, Heidi Rupke from Clean Memphis. Clean Memphis is one of NRDC’s Food Matters partners and has been engaged in developing and implementing many successful food waste reduction measures through its Memphis Food Waste Project.
On November 17, 2022, Clean Memphis hosted its annual event, Reharvest Memphis, for more than 180 people at a local brewery, featuring food items that might otherwise have gone to waste. The menu for the evening included small plates of chicken and vegetable pot pies, black eyed pea fritters, Indonesian street food, pot stickers, charcuterie, coconut haupia with caramel tuille, mini s’mores, and “ugly” chocolate turtles alongside beer, wine, and a signature cocktail. According to some estimates, this event could have produced up to 200 pounds of trash. Instead, just 3.5 pounds of event materials were sent to the landfill. We also captured 50 pounds of food scraps for composting and 56 pounds of materials for recycling and delivered 20 pounds of surplus food to a local organization that serves meals. How did the Clean Memphis team pull this off? The short answer: Advance planning and elbow grease.
To us, the term “zero waste” is directional even when it is not strictly literal. (This event did produce three and a half pounds of landfill material, after all.) But even orienting toward zero waste takes careful planning. We started by talking with chefs about our zero waste goals for the evening. Then we engaged a generous sponsor for compostable dishes and utensils and made sure each chef was well-stocked with these items. The ingredients for Reharvest’s one-of-a-kind menu included rescued items from grocery stores via the local food bank. These items were cleared from shelves because they were too close to the date on the label or had damaged packaging or for other reasons, none of which affected the quality of the ingredients. But in the capable hands of our chefs, this food created a sumptuous feast.
To raise awareness about the viability and deliciousness of rescued food, the Midsouth Food Bank was an in-kind event sponsor for Reharvest Memphis. Four days prior to Reharvest Memphis, the food bank hosted the chefs at their Agency Mart, a part of their operation that offers highly perishable and odd quantities of food to local organizations. Chefs selected ingredients from this supply while exploring the food bank's community outreach.
A leading contributor to waste at catered events is preparing for more guests than actually attend. We kept careful tally of ticketed attendees and did our best to forecast actual attendance. The weather was cold, so we anticipated some folks would choose to stay home. We estimated 150 guests out of a possible 212 would show up. When we added chefs, volunteers, and staff, our final count was just over 180 people.
Small plate passed hors d’oeuvres was the next strategy for reducing waste. NRDC estimates that plate waste in food service settings accounts for 20% of all food waste in the U.S. Portions that were satisfying but not overwhelming drastically reduced the amount of plate waste at Reharvest Memphis. Servers passed as many rounds of each item as guests desired, but the volume of scraps remained low.
Another unique feature of Reharvest Memphis was that chefs took the mic to discuss the foods they had selected and the dishes they designed with them. They mingled with guests after their dishes had been passed and added to the festive atmosphere. One chef said afterwards, “Cooking is like putting myself on a plate. Watching people enjoy my food is the best feeling in the world.” Each course became a social and creative experience.
Volunteers running zero waste stations were another key to a successful zero waste event. Zero waste stations (waste sorting stations that separate compost, recycling, and trash) are not yet universally familiar throughout the U.S., especially in the American South. Clear signage and friendly volunteers who could help guests match their discards to the right bins kept contamination rates low and guests informed about the process. We developed systems for collecting full bags in a loading area to ensure that compostables didn't accidentally get tossed into a dumpster. Our team kept a spreadsheet and scale on site and weighed bags after the event to receive immediate feedback on the success of our diversion efforts.
Even with all of our preventative measures, we knew some food would be left over. Any food that had been plated or brought out (but was untouched) could be sent home with guests or staff. We offered compostable to-go containers and several guests loaded them up with desserts (the only items remaining) to bring to the office the next day. One chef took their leftovers to their restaurant staff. One large pan of chocolate bread pudding—the base for the mini s’mores--remained untouched in the back of house. We donated this to a local organization serving unhoused people. We had made arrangements with this donation partner ahead of time and treated donated food with the same food safety standards used throughout the evening.
Reharvest Memphis is a fun and educational event that highlights the deliciousness of rescued food and the creativity of local chefs. It also demonstrates that zero waste events can be environmentally forward without feeling stingy or complicated. Zero waste isn’t rocket science. In our case, it’s a party.