Taste Trends: Q&A With Sodexo Live!’s Molly Crouch on Sustainable Menus

April 3, 2024

For organizers who are truly serious about sustainability and lowering the environmental footprint of their trade shows, meetings and events, incorporating plant-forward menus is more than a culinary trend — it’s a strategic choice that aligns with broader societal shifts, especially among younger generations. By making this change, event organizers can not only enhance the attendee experience but also cut carbon and costs while contributing to a more sustainable and equitable world. 

The demand for plant-based options is growing steadily, driven by a combination of health concerns, environmental awareness and animal welfare considerations. While only 4 and 5% of the U.S. population are professed vegans and vegetarians, respectively, more people are walking away from meat and dairy consumption due to their harmful effects on animals, human health and the climate, as public awareness of these issues intensifies. 

With animal agriculture responsible for approximately 10-11% of global greenhouse gas emissions and a major contributor to deforestation, water use and pollution, switching to plant-based menus can be a forward-thinking move for business events looking to appeal to an environmentally aware, health-conscious demographic while demonstrating their commitment to progressive social and environmental practices.

So how can planners balance satisfying the dietary preferences of all attendees while also meeting their events’ sustainability goals?

Just in time for Earth Month, we caught up with Molly Crouch, corporate director of sustainability for Sodexo Live!, a provider of food, beverage and hospitality services for global venues. The company boasts a bevy of environmental sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives, including an emphasis on sustainable menus.

A member of the Sodexo Live! team since 2008, Crouch is responsible for executing the company’s CSR initiatives while working closely with colleagues across all sectors of the business to ensure strategic, effective and impactful growth in the sustainability space. Here’s what she shared about the steps the company is taking to move event menus in a more earth-friendly direction, and how meeting and event planners can play a crucial role in this growing movement. 

What is Sodexo Live! currently doing to develop and promote more Earth-friendly, plant-based menu options for meetings and events?

Molly Crouch, Sodexo Live!
Molly Crouch, Sodexo Live!

We created an internal “Green Team” to ensure a constant conversation is happening around sustainability, and one of the pillars we work towards is boosting plant-based meals. By sharing Sodexo’s greater global targets around carbon reduction and the role plant-based eating plays, by fostering an awareness campaign and sharing best practices across our entire portfolio, and by providing an internal repository of helpful tips on how to start the conversations with clients, we’re able to work towards offering more Earth-friendly, plant-based offerings.

We also look to define the “why” and the “how” when it comes to choosing plant-based items that event planners can use to help them make a business case for their clients. In many ways, it’s a case-by-case situation, and we work with our clients to increase plant-based options as more of the standard vs. the exception. 

We’ve recently spoken with Greener by Default to look at our catering menus, like at the Orange County Convention Center, for example, to see if there are ways to include plant-based dishes as the focus on a buffet by putting it first, using eye-catching signage and offering smaller options of animal protein options.

We conscientiously incorporate planet-friendly ingredients, such as the Future 50 Foods, into our menus to increase the understanding of how planet-friendly eating can improve everyone’s health and well-being. We’re also in discussions with a carbon labeling company to apply real-world carbon data to our recipes helping our teams and our clients identify low carbon meal options more easily and increase overall awareness. 

When it comes to promoting plant-based menus at events, most organizers and venues emphasize cost-savings, sustainability and/or health benefits while avoiding addressing the ethical costs of consuming meat and dairy products. Do you see this changing any time soon?

I don’t see this changing too drastically within the next decade or so as older generations continue to currently influence most purchasing habits, including food, primarily based on cost. As millennials and Gen Z increase their influence on our markets worldwide, their values will start to turn the tide on awareness of the ethical costs of personal consumption habits including food and other goods. 

Last year, Sodexo released its first Sustainable Food Barometer report measuring the general population’s perceptions of sustainable food in four countries. In the U.S., 82% of those under the age of 45 felt that adopting more sustainable food practices is an urgent need. When it comes to eating less meat, 47% of those polled in the U.S. stated they don’t currently do it and don’t have the desire or intention to do it. These results show skepticism and a want to see a verifiable health benefit to reducing meat and dairy, with the ethical implications of the same decision coming in at a distant second.  

What are the biggest and most exciting plant-based culinary trends happening now in Sodexo convention center kitchens?

One of the biggest and most easily adaptable plant-based culinary trends is to take dishes that consumers already enjoy and replace the main ingredients with plant-based alternatives. 

From Jackfruit “Crab” Cakes to Chocolate Avocado Mousse, our convention center culinarians continue to develop scalable plant-based solutions for our guests. Our chefs enjoy upcycling plant-based ingredients into new and creative dishes that allow for the full use of the item resulting in a multitude of diverse tastes and textures.     

Some other delicious plant-based savory and dessert options include:  

  • Coconut Ceviche with Leche de Tigre
  • Butternut Squash Risotto with Farro Medio, Kale and Zucchini Bacon                
  • Vegan Apple Crisps
  • Pumpkin Bars with Vegan Cream Cheese Frosting
  • Vegan Pineapple Upside Down Cake

Sodexo Live! Executive Chef Stephan Blaser at Huntington Place in Detroit is always including plant-based options when customizing menus (which is all the time!). Last year, he created an amazing four-course plant-based plated lunch for a sustainability meeting and it was both delicious and all locally sourced. 

Recently, Sodexo announced that it had teamed up with Humane Society International to create a specialized masterclass aimed at training chefs, nutritionists, buyers and marketing teams to create and promote plant-forward, animal-friendly and environmentally conscious menus. Can you explain how this works?

This innovative partnership with Humane Society International is a perfect fit with Sodexo’s overarching goal of increasing plant-forward options for our clients and consumers. It will allow our Sodexo Live! chefs to expand their knowledge and creativity, elevate the overall food experience, and inspire meeting and event planners to incorporate plant-based dishes at events. The format of this specialized masterclass will also help our teams educate planners on both the human health and climate benefits of plant-based eating. 

What are your top tips for helping event planners overcome any attendee pushback to eliminating meat and dairy from their event menus?

Help educate the attendees in advance on “why” it’s important through event apps, event websites, emails, etc. Put it in terms that attendees can easily relate to regarding the benefits of moving away from meats and dairy to help build a healthier planet full of healthier people. If attendees know the “why” and can personally relate to it, they’ll usually be more amenable to the change. 

Integrate plant-based options gradually year-over-year and highlight the benefits of those options on the event app and website. Plus, include onsite awareness through signage and other communication methods at the event itself. 

Lastly, consider serving international dishes that are more naturally plant-forward so the meat and dairy removal won’t be as noticeable, like Mediterranean, Indian, Mexican, Vietnamese and Middle Eastern cuisines.

Know of a dynamic event industry culinary professional who deserves some time in the spotlight? Reach out to lisa.savas@informa.com and danica.tormohlen@informa.com.


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