Green Interview: Jim Spellos, Director of Technology, Rock and Wrap It Up!

November 9, 2018

If you attend a fair amount of industry conferences, you’ve likely run into Jim Spellos, an incredibly popular and engaging technology speaker whose educational sessions on topics ranging from mobile apps and digital security to VR and other hot technologies have a reputation for packing a room. But besides his love for tech and rock music (he’s an accomplished musician and songwriter, too!), Spellos harbors a lesser-known passion: saving the planet while helping those in need. 

As a board member and director of technology for Rock and Wrap It Up!, an anti-poverty think tank dedicated to fighting hunger by recovering leftover food from touring musical groups, schools, professional sport teams, hospitals, restaurants, TV/film shoots, hotels and conferences, then donating it to agencies that feed the hungry, Spellos is driven to not only help combat food insecurity but also reduce the environmental impact of events by diverting food from landfill. 

I had a chance to sit down with this kind-hearted New Yorker to learn about his work with this inspiring organization as well as how meetings and events can go from being part of the problem to part of the solution – and make a difference in people’s lives in the process. 

Lisa Plummer Savas: Tell me about Rock and Wrap It Up! and how you got involved with them.

Jim Spellos: Around 2001 or 2002, a mutual friend told me about this great charity in Long Island that needed technical help and support. I went over and met Syd and Diane (Mandelbaum) and became advocates of theirs from that day on. Syd is the son of Holocaust survivors and he wanted to give back to the country by fighting poverty and hunger. In his past life, he was a geneticist and scientist but he gave up his entire career because believed so much in doing this work.

Syd saw the horror of all this food (waste) initially at music concerts, hence the name. He had the idea of touring music groups putting it in their rider that all (leftover) food had to be donated, and these were major groups, like Aerosmith, Bon Jovi and The Rolling Stones. So, the focus was the music area for the first five to seven years and then that grew into sporting events. By the time I got involved, they had arrangements with Marriott Hotels where they weren’t only picking up food but were also recovering half-used bottles of shampoo and rolls of toilet paper and delivering it to The Bowery Mission in New York City. 

One of the things I knew about our industry and had been crying out to planners about in the 80s and 90s was food waste, so it became a no-brainer to move into doing food recovery at conferences. 

LPS: How does RWU’s food donation process work and how are you spreading the word about what you do?

JS: The process is simple: we vet the different food agencies, the planners reach out to us, we find out where the event is, connect with the agencies and then we have them talk directly to the kitchen (at the venue). Then all the kitchen has to do is wrap up the food, put it in hotel trays and schedule a time for us to pick it up.

We reach out to (planners and convention centers) and anytime we’re talking to a hotel we mention the program to them. For the past few years we’ve talked about food recovery on Twitter and at events about sustainable practices, so, we use any means, ways or forms that we have to connect with planners and centers.

We recovered more than 500,000 lbs. of food last year, which resulted in more than 443,000 meals and the reduction of 289,000 lbs. of CO2and that’s just what we can quantify. We also created the Whole Earth Calculator, a mobile app that helps identify and socially share food donations made as well as the carbon emissions and methane saved through those donations. It’s so humbling to be part of this type of organization because of the reach that it has.

LPS: Do you work with specific partners in the events industry?

JS: Our partners are food service companies like Delaware North and Aramark that buy food for convention centers, although we’ve had a huge partner at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas over the years. Their head chef is a champion of our cause and donates massive amounts of pounds of food every year to local charities and shelters. Another great example is the folks at the Albany County Convention & Visitors Bureau, who integrate what we do in some of their sales pitches and talk about being able to do food recovery at the different events in their area. So, it’s a catch-as-catch-can, trying to find the places that really embrace it.

Once we have partners in place at facilities they’re able to make it happen but it’s a step by step process. When you’re a small agency with only a couple of full-time staff people you need other people to help spearhead the process. The way Syd has always looked at RWU as a global anti-poverty, anti-hunger think tank, that our job is to keep coming up with great ideas and ways to address poverty because when you address the poverty issue you address the hunger issue, as well.

LPS: To what extent is food waste a problem in the events industry? 

JS: It’s an enormous problem. Up to 40 percent of all food is thrown away. If you look at what the EPA says to do, part of countering the problem involves reducing production and feeding those in need, so any little work that anyone can do makes a huge difference. What we’re finding in the events industry is you have the standard 3-5 percent overage (of f&b) and as long as that food doesn’t go out, we can take it. 

Lately, we’ve been seeing some clever planners talking about the overabundance of the buffets, that when a hotel puts out all that stuff it looks luscious but that anything that goes out can’t be recovered. It would make more sense to put out less with something that says, “there’s plenty more food where this comes from but whatever we don’t use we want to donate to people in need.” It would be such a logical, simple thing to do to overcome any perception that the event is shortchanging people on food. We have all this excess food in our industry and yet there are such huge obstacles to doing something about it. 

LPS: What kinds of obstacles?

JS: Anytime I talk to an industry, I get the same type of resistance and lack of knowledge about it, whether it’s “can we do it?” or “is it legal?” or “it’s too much work.” Whenever I do several sessions at a conference and one of them is a food recovery session, I can guarantee that my tech sessions are way packed and there will be maybe a handful of people at my food session. Part of the issue is how do you create the awareness for people who aren’t sure they even want to find out enough to do it?

What I see is that the people who are interested are completely into it and there are amazing people who “get” sustainability and food recovery. But I think there’s a lot of information still out there that might be preventing people from embracing it. There are two things that we get hit with all the time: one is the function of time, “how much time does it take for us to do that?” and the other is the function of legality, “our legal department tells us we can’t,” and that comes both from the hotel and the planner side.

LPS: How are you working to overcome that?

JS: Twenty years ago, the U.S. passed the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which essentially means there is no liability for organizations that want to donate food in good faith. At RWU, one of the things we try to adhere to is making sure that all steps of the process are done properly – we vet all the agencies, we only take prepared, not served foods and we make sure the agency can use the food rather than letting it go to waste there. We like to think of what we offer as a turn-key solution because first of all, we don’t charge for what we do and second, we don’t want it to be an imposition. 

One of the things that we do request from the agencies we work with is that they’re able to pick up the food, although in some cases we have volunteers to help with that. But those two issues of the legal and the amount of work are so intertwined and ingrained in people’s heads that even when you tell them there’s a federal law and we can do this for them, we still experience resistance. Still, there are some planners out there who are doing amazing things with sustainability, including food recovery and making it part of their contracts.

LPS: What are some key things event planners should know about donating leftover food at events?

JS: Even if you’ve only thought about doing it right before the event it’s not too late. One of the things I’ve learned is that the folks at an agency don’t work out as far in advance as we do in the events industry. They’re working a few days out, they’re looking at meal-to-meal. We like to get that information in advance, however, because sometimes it’s more food than a single agency can use and we need to make sure we can line up all the places that can use it. But ultimately, all that has to happen is the connection between the folks who have the food and the folks who want to receive it. It’s just a phone call, so go on our website, contact us, tell us you want to donate food and let us do the rest of the work. 

The Federal Food Donation Act of 2008 also encourages organizations and entities to donate excess food to nonprofit organizations that provide assistance to food-insecure people rather than throw it away, so it’s not only a federal law from ’98 but also a secondary federal statute in ‘08. One of the things that we’re trying to do behind and in front of the scenes is to get each state to pass its own state food donation act so it becomes even clearer that no matter where you live, your local government is not only supporting but also encouraging food donation.

LPS: How is food donation a key factor in overall event sustainability?

JS: Just with the landfill that’s not being impacted by all this stuff being thrown away! All the paper, books and publications, all the giveaways, so much of an event can have a huge carbon footprint, so we look at this as part of a bigger picture. Certain convention centers I’ve seen are doing such great things, such as Pittsburgh, Dallas and Oregon – they want to have a low carbon footprint for every one of their conferences. But the fact that there are so many homeless people in this country, that 35-40 percent of people consider themselves food insecure and we live in a society of excess, to me all that drives food donation to the top of the conversation. 

LPS: Why is sustainability important to you as an event professional?

JS: Saving the planet for the next generation. These are resources that are not infinite by any means and the fact that we have a solution and we’re not dealing with the problem of people being hungry, while 40 percent of our food is being wasted, doesn’t that make you think that all we have to do is make one or two shifts in how we do things and we can take care of this problem? In our industry, an industry of excess, to me this a just no-brainer. Whether it’s food recovery or sustainability, hopefully, we can get people to be aware of how they can help. I think this country has become more about being greedy than giving back and that’s something we need to stop – and soon.

Jim Spellos is also the president of Meeting U., whose mission is to help people become more productive and comfortable with technology. To learn more, go HERE.

Editor’s Note: This interview originally ran in our sister publication, TSNN. I recently spoke with Spellos to get some additional feedback and suggestions from him that will appear in articles later this month.

November is sustainability month for us at CEN. We'll be bringing you even more content on sustainable practices within the meetings and events industry within the coming days. 

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