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Choose an organic caterer

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Serving local and organic food is a great green move for any wedding, birthday party, business conference, or romantic date. It’ll help you become carbon neutral, decrease your energy and chemical consumption, and may even be healthier and more tasty than conventional food choices.

How to choose a local, organic caterer

  1. Green catering finders: Use the resources listed in the Find it! section to locate a caterer in your area offering local and organic fare.
  2. Choose a green restaurant: If you can’t find a traditional caterer to provide food for your event, consider that many restaurants provide party planning and production services. Just be sure to opt for one that serves local and organic food. Even better, look for a restaurateur that’s been certified green.
  3. Go veggie!: When planning the menu with your caterer, consider choosing one with little or no meat and fish. If you choose some meat options, be sure to provide a limited assortment of vegetarian menu choices for those wishing to dine meat-free.
  4. Other eco-considerations: In addition to the food they serve, you may wish to consider how a caterer handles other food service issues, like flowers, dishes and cutlery, trash, food waste, packaging, and water and energy consumption.

Find it! Local and organic caterers

Did you know?

The New Oxford American Dictionary chose "locavore" as its 2007 word of the year. A locavore is someone who seeks out locally-produced food whenever possible, preferring to eat that which is fresh and seasonal—qualities inherent in local food.[1]

Choosing a local, organic caterer helps you go green because...

  • Global produce trade is fuel-intensive, whether by air, land, or sea. This adds to mounting levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
  • Organic food is free of chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers that put the environment in peril and pose human health risks.

Whether serving 20 or 300 people, functions requiring the services of a caterer can have significant environmental impacts. Choosing local and organic food goes a long way toward mitigating some of the more common destructive agricultural practices.

Globe-trotting food

Most produce is traded on a national (and international) scale, making "food miles" an issue to consider. Researchers at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture found that non-locally grown produce travels an estimated 27 times as far as its homegrown counterpart. For example, the researchers, using Iowa as an end point, found that Iowa-grown garlic traveled 31 miles to reach buyers while garlic grown and distributed conventionally traveled 1,800 miles. In another instance, Iowa-grown apples traveled 61 miles to reach consumers while conventionally grown and distributed apples traveled 1,726 miles.[2] The Leopold Center is also exploring the idea of creating an eco-label to help consumers select produce grown and shipped with the least environmental impact.

In the United States, 90 percent of domestic produce is transported by truck.[2] In 2002, transport of agricultural goods by truck was responsible for an estimated 1 percent of emissions generated by American freight trucking.[3] Next to air freight, moving produce by truck is the least environmentally-friendly.

Leopold Center researchers also developed a "Transport Environmental Impact" (TEI) rating that considers both the total mileage traveled by produce from grower to grocer, as well as the mode of transportation. Interestingly, when the TEI system is used, locally-grown produce doesn't always rate as the most eco-friendly choice. For example, a pineapple transported by ship from Costa Rica to Florida and then trucked to Iowa has a lower TEI rating than grapes trucked from California to Iowa. Even though the pineapple traveled a greater overall distance than the grapes, its environmental impact was smaller since movement by ship releases less carbon dioxide.[2]

In January of 2007, the United Kingdom's leading environmental charity and organic certifier, the Soil Association, announced it would take action to reduce the number of organic foods imported by air freight. Proposed options include carbon offsetting, marking produce with labels that reveal "food miles" traveled, and enacting a total ban on air-freighted organic foods.[4]

Down-to-earth fare

The organic food industry—worth $23 billion in 2002—is a growing one with consumer demand rising an estimated 20 percent each year. Although organic food can be found in 73 percent of traditional grocery stores and supermarkets, it accounts for only 1 to 2 percent of overall food sales in the US.[5][6]

Organic food must meet criteria set forth by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to be officially certified as organic: it must be grown in soil free of toxic pesticides and fertilizers and cannot be genetically modified or irradiated.[7] Chemical pesticides and fertilizers are not only believed to be harmful to human (see Related health issues below) and animal health, but also pollute ecosystems and waterways.[8] It's estimated that approximately 670 million birds are exposed to pesticides used in farming annually. Ten percent die as a result.[9]

While omitting chemical pesticides and fertilizers helps to protect human and animal health, as well as prevent soil and water pollution, organic farming may also be key in fighting global climate change. During a 23-season study of conventional versus organic farming methods, the Rodale Institute discovered that organic farming combats global warming through carbon sequestration. In agricultural applications, the more organic matter that is retained in the soil, the more carbon is sequestered. While conventional farming depletes organic matter through the use of chemical fertilizers, organic farming uses animal manure and cover crops, which actually build soil organic matter.

Organic farming further reduces atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) by using 37 percent fewer fossil fuels than conventional farming.[10] The Rodale Institute estimates that if all 160 million acres of corn and soybean farmland in the US were switched to organic farming methods, it would be equivalent to removing 58.7 million cars from the road, and would satisfy 73 percent of the proposed US Kyoto targets for CO2 reduction.[11]


The move toward organic farming has also received a fair amount of criticism. Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, believes organic farming techniques are detrimental to the environment. In a December 2006 issue of The Economist he claims that low crop yields from organic farming result in the destruction of more land, while using synthetic fertilizers allows farmers to harvest vast amounts of, for example, avocado trees, in a small area of cultivated land.[12] Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on high-input crops that have increased world food supply, but has been criticized because of the resulting increase in reliance on monoculture cropping and inorganic fertilizer use.[13] His stats have also been challenged by a 2008 report by the Agronomy Journal, which concluded that many organic, low-input crops can yield as much dry matter as conventional crops (and sometimes more) given the right weed control conditions.[14]

A 2007 study conducted by researchers at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, revealed that organic produce often travels farther than its conventional counterparts to reach kitchen tables. Due to the harmful CO2 emissions associated with long-distance transportation, the environmental benefits of buying organic are essentially canceled out. For example, to reach Edmonton, organic mangoes had to travel from Ecuador or Peru, while conventional mangoes would have shipped from geographically closer Mexico.[15]

Other critics charge that retailers often sell organic-certified products to target consumers for whom price is no object, regardless of whether the product carries environmental and/or economic benefits.[12]

The politics behind the USDA's term "Organic" complicates matters further. The National Organic Program (NOP) was developed to enable large, conventional farms to more easily transition into organic production, and therefore develop the industry.[16] Initially, small farmers feared that the standardization of the term organic would push them out of the market, as the logistics and cost of applying for the certification often exceeds their means. Since then, small farmers have been able to secure their niche in direct markets, though for those who sell to retailers, the label "organic" helps their sales. Additionally, in her book Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California[17], Julie Guthman notes that organic practices fall notably short of the agro-ecological ideals that were originally established during the 1960s and 70s. Despite its drawbacks, monoculture is still the primary model of growing on large-scale "industrialized" organic farms. Finally, labor rights and migrant worker health and safety is not included as a criteria in organic certification, so may still be of concern on large, industrialized farms.

Related health issues

Local foods

Since local produce doesn't experience a protracted, in-transit lull between farmer and consumer, it's not as likely to spoil or come in contact with harmful bacteria as its conventionally farmed counterpart. Preservatives are often used to prevent spoilage in produce farmed for national and international distribution, and these additives can be harmful to human health. In the event that local produce becomes contaminated, the chance of it causing a widespread health crisis is nil given that its distribution area is restricted. During the 2006 E. coli outbreak, the infected spinach was grown on a large-scale farm in a single region in California but consumers in 26 states fell ill.[18]

Additionally, small, local farms are more likely to use few or no pesticides in comparison to industrial farms.[18] Chemicals used in conventional farming show up in food as persistent organic pollutants (POPs). POP exposure has been linked to immune system suppression, nervous and hormonal system disorders, reproductive system damage, and various cancers, including breast cancer.[19]

Organic foods

A recent study conducted by the Journal for Alternative and Complementary Medicine concluded that organic produce showed higher than average levels of 21 important nutrients, including vitamin C, magnesium, iron, and phosphorus.[20] For many, the choice to eat organic produce is mainly about ensuring that fruits and vegetables (two highly beneficial food groups) offer the most health benefits possible—meaning not grown with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

Studies into the health benefits of organically-produced foods are beginning to confirm the upsides of these eco-choices. The QualityLowInputFood Project recently found that antioxidant levels (key in reducing the risk of heart disease and many cancers) were 40 percent higher in organic fruits and vegetables and 90 percent greater in milk from organically-fed herds.[21] A report by Pesticide Action Network North America found that American consumers are exposed to toxic chemicals known as POPs as many as 70 times a day. POP exposure has been associated with immune system suppression, nervous and hormonal system disorders, reproductive system damage, and various cancers, including breast cancer. The leading fruits and vegetables contaminated by pesticides are spinach, radishes, summer squash, winter squash, cantaloupes, and cucumbers. The two leading POPs found in food are dieldrin and DDE.[19]

Children are particularly susceptible to the health effects of pesticide ingestion due to their lower body weights and higher metabolisms. Every day, more than 1 million children between the ages of one and five eat an estimated 15 pesticides on contaminated fruits and vegetables. Six hundred thousand of these children eat dosages of pesticides deemed unsafe by the government.[22]

On the other hand, supporters of pesticide use in farming believe the chemical levels in conventional foods are appropriately regulated by the government and are too minor to adversely effect human health.[7]


  • carbon sequestration: The process by which carbon is captured (in the form of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas) from the atmosphere and incorporated into soil, ocean, and plant matter.
  • genetically modified organism: A GMO results from merging the genetic make-up of two organisms to create a desired byproduct that could otherwise not be found in nature. Engineering GMOs is a common practice in conventional farming, and studies have shown that GMOs pose significant environmental risks such as killing off living, natural organisms and becoming immune to pesticides.[23]
  • food irradiation: The use of radioactive waste to eliminate bacteria and extend the shelf life of various food products.[24]
  • persistent organic pollutants: POPs are toxic chemicals that were, and in some instances still are, used in agriculture for pest and disease control and crop production, as well as in manufacturing. Although many POPs have been banned, they remain in the environment and global food chain, easily traveling via wind and water.[25]
  • dieldrin: An insecticide, widely used on crops from 1950 to 1970. It was used to control termites until 1987, when the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned all uses. Exposure to dieldrin occurs through eating contaminated foods such as fish, root crops, and dairy products. Build up of dieldrin in the human body can lead to nervous system disorders.[26]
  • DDE: A breakdown product of the once-common pesticide DDT, which was banned in the US in 1972 but still enters the environment through use in other countries where it isn't banned. Human exposure comes from eating contaminated leafy and root vegetables and fatty meat, poultry, and fish. Studies show that women with high amounts of DDE in their breast milk are unable to breast feed as long as women with low levels of DDE, and are at increased risk of giving birth prematurely.[27]
  • monoculture: A method of farming in which one type of crop is planted over a large space. Although this method allows for the specialization of machinery to manage the crop, and large yields are often achieved, there are ecological drawbacks. Nutrients in the soil become depleted more quickly, prompting more chemical fertilizers to be added. Monocultures also are more susceptible to massive pest-caused damage because of the way they concentrate resources in a continuous space. Nutrient and water waste cycles also tend to be less enclosed in a monoculture, causing large amounts of runoff and pollution in natural ecosystems.[28]

External links


  1. Oxford University Press - Oxford Word Of The Year: Locavore
  2. Science News Online - Local Foods Could Make for Greener Grocers
  3. Sustainable Table - The Issues: Air Pollution
  4. The Guardian - Organic food watchdog considers sanctions on air freight
  5. Organic Monitor - The Global Market for Organic Food & Drink
  6. Amber Waves - Organic Agriculture: Gaining Ground
  7. Seattle Post-Intelligencer - Are organic fruit, veggies worth the extra cost?
  8. Modern Brewery Age - Hops in beer often laced with pesticides, writer says
  9. American Bird Conservancy - Pesticides and Birds
  10. Straus Communications - Organic Farming Sequesters Atmospheric Carbon and Nutrients in Soils: The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial® Findings
  11. The New Farm - Organic farming combats global warming … big time
  12. The Economist - Food politics: Voting with your trolley
  13. - Norman Borlaug
  14. Agronomy Journal - Organic and Conventional Production Systems in the Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trials: I. Productivity 1990–2002
  15. Medical News Today - Organic Food Miles Take Toll On Environment
  16. US Department of Agriculture - The National Organic Program: Organic Food Production Act of 1990
  17. Guthman, 127Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California128 (University of California Press, 2004)
  18. Sustainable Table - The Issues: Buy Local
  19. Pesticide Action Network North America - "Nowhere to Hide" media release
  20. The South African Journal of Natural Medicine - What does organic really mean?
  21. Weil Lifestyle - Organic Foods Have More Antioxidants, Minerals
  22. Environmental Defense - Challenge: Ensuring Public Health by Protecting Food and Drinking Water Supplies
  23. ProQuest CSA - Genetically Modfified Foods: Friend or Foe?
  24. Organic Consumers Association - Food Bytes: USDA Propaganda Event Will Accompany Release of the Controversial National Organic Food Standards
  25. US Environmental Protection Agency - Persistent Organic Pollutants: A Global Issue, A Global Response
  26. US Department of Health and Human Services - Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry: ToxFAQS
  27. US Department of Health and Human Services - Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry: ToxFAQS
  28. University of California, Berkley - Modern Agriculture: Ecological impacts and the possibilities for truly sustainable farming