Conference and banquet food attracts many adjectives, but “inspiring” isn’t typically one of them.

These catered events for hundreds of people are notorious for serving limp lettuce, rubbery chicken, over-sauced beef and pasta buried in processed cheese.

But when the conference itself is meant to fill participants with inspiration, serving antibiotic-laden meat or vegetables shipped in from across the country won’t do.

Such was the dilemma faced by the organizers of Saturday’s TEDx Dirigo conference. The Maine event is part of the global family of TED conferences, which began in California in 1984 and have become known for attracting philanthropists, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, political activists, designers, marketing executives and technology professionals. These change agents and thought leaders appreciate the conferences’ promise of “ideas worth spreading.”

“Our event is about showcasing Maine ideas worth spreading,” said Adam Burk, executive director of TEDx Dirigo, an independently organized TED conference. “It’s not only about the people on the stage. We think about all the elements of the day as representing Maine. Our audience has to apply to attend, and is curated just like the people on the stage.”

According to Burk, eating factory-farmed, meat-heavy, processed food trucked in from across the country is not an idea the organizers want to propagate.

“We wanted to feature local farms and have vegetarian and vegan options,” Burk said. “We’re trying to practice one of the ideas we’re spreading.”

Sustainable food is a regular theme on the TED circuit. Organizers of the Maine conference wanted to stay true to this idea by serving a lunch that emphasizes locally grown and harvested food with lots of plant-based choices, which have a lower carbon footprint than dishes centered around animal products.

The challenge came in finding a venue that could serve such fare to 275 attendees.

Because the conference takes place at Portland Stage Company, the organizers considered arranging for lunch at one of the nearby hotels, but quickly realized such venues wouldn’t be able to accommodate the event’s sustainable food needs.

Organizers also toyed with the idea of splitting up the participants into smaller groups and sending them to different local restaurants. However, this proposal had the potential to break the high energy flow of ideas that is the conference’s bread and butter.

Then someone suggested contacting the Maine College of Art, where the cafe that was added in 2008 has garnered buzz around town for the high quality of its meals. The TEDx organizers quickly realized it was a perfect fit.

Run by general manager Pam Ryder, who works for Sodexo, the cafe serves about 200 students a day during the school year.

“We’re trying to provide a healthy meal without a lot of processed foods,” Ryder said. “Every meal has a vegetarian and vegan option. About 25 to 30 percent of our students choose that option.”

While the cafe has catered many special events hosted by the college, this will be the first outside group that will enjoy its food. The buffet menu from which the TEDx attendees will dine features numerous items from local farms and food producers, along with a heavy emphasis on plant-based dishes.

“If they gave me none of those parameters, this probably would have still been the menu I pulled together,” Ryder said.

She added that sustainable food is not only a concern for the Maine College of Art community, but is a top priority for Sodexo, a company that provides food to 10 million people at 6,000 locations each day.

“It’s a huge thing right now,” Ryder said. “But I don’t think it’s a fad. It’s not going away. The pendulum swung too far to the processed foods and chemical foods. Now we need to return to the middle.”

Ryder is surprised that serving local food and plant-based meals hasn’t caught on with more of the area’s conference venues.

She said when it comes to sourcing local food, cost is likely a barrier for many of these food service providers, but she also said a lack of education is another challenge.

“It’s also what people know,” Ryder said. “Not just the people eating it. It’s also the people cooking it.”

With the TEDx Dirigo conference in town, there’s a chance some of these ideas may percolate into the wider community and influence the menus at other function venues.

“This conference and these talks are very different than anything you’ve ever heard,” Burk said. “It’s about telling stories. It’s more of a retreat experience than a conference experience. It’s a real community of hope and possibility that comes together.”

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at [email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamilaTEDx