Convention Centers Take Locally Grown to a New Level

By: Samantha Whitehorne

How convention centers are serving attendees food grown onsite. (Titles "Local Flavor" in the print edition.)

When conference attendees bite into vegetable paninis or Colorado green chili prepared by chefs from convention center caterer Centerplate at the Colorado Convention Center, they probably won't realize just how close to their seats the fruits and vegetables they're eating were grown. Right on the sunny south side of the convention center, in fact.

Blue Bear Farm, one of the first and largest farms planted on the grounds of a convention center, has 2,000 plants growing in the 5,000-square-foot space—all of which will be used by chefs to deliver natural, healthy, and delicious dishes. "The chefs at Centerplate are going to have a field day, hitting the garden in the morning to pick fresh cilantro, kale, oregano, sage, rosemary, tarragon, and thyme to use in all their convention center catering," says Richard Scharf, president and CEO of Visit Denver, The Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The farm—which grew out of Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock's Denver Seeds Initiative to create a local food economy that spurs job creation and gives all Denver neighborhoods access to healthy and affordable food—is expected to yield a 1,800-pound crop in its first year, growing to 3,000 pounds next year and ultimately 5,000 pounds. Edible landscaping and urban agricultural company Produce Denver designed, built, and maintains the farm.

"Centerplate is committed to delivering one-of-a-kind, locally relevant hospitality programs for each community, and we've taken this community commitment to a whole new level with the Blue Bear Farm, blending tremendous local business opportunities with good-for-you new foods," says Centerplate CEO Des Hague.

Centerplate and the Colorado Convention Center aren't alone in this effort. At the Vancouver Convention Centre in British Columbia, Canada, a six-acre "living roof" covered with coastal grasses and plants not only serves as an insulator for the center but also provides plenty of food for the honeybees living in its four beehives. In 2011, the bees produced 160 pounds of wildflower honey. Half of the honey will be used by the culinary team for exclusive treats and pastries, while the rest was packaged in jars for promotional use.

"We're excited to see that the living roof is flourishing in a short span of three years and, what's more, doing what it was intended to do," says Bruce Hemstock, the roof's landscape architect and partner at PWL Partnership Landscape Architects, Inc.

Another reason to love a convention center farm? It can serve as a unique event space. At Blue Bear Farm, attendees can enjoy food and drink while meandering through the very garden beds that produced the tasty treats.

Samantha Whitehorne is deputy editor at Associations Now in Washington, DC. Email: [email protected]

Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editorial director of Associations Now in Washington, DC.