Kentucky Voices: UK dining decision pits mission against expediency

December 2, 2013 

  • At issue: Nov. 18 commentary by Eric Monday, "UK inclusive in discussing food services" and Nov. 8 Herald-Leader editorial, "Best to keep food in the UK family; But school has set table to outsource"

  • About the authors: Ernie Yanarella, left, is a former University of Kentucky Board of Trustees faculty trustee and current member of the President's Sustainability Advisory Committee. Richard S. Levine is former UK professor of architecture and director of CSC Design Studio.

University of Kentucky vice president Eric Monday's response to an editorial questioning the ability and willingness of the university's administration to closely monitor a private vendor's takeover of UK dining service deserves a rejoinder.

As faculty members committed to the retention of the existing UK dining program, we feel compelled to offer these contrary and critical observations and concerns:

1. The problem of investing in new dining services was created by the administration when it decided to tear down existing housing, which already had dining facilities. It failed to negotiate for new and larger facilities with the company building the dorms; neither did it work with another firm to include dining halls in or for the dorms.

2. This failure then became the catalyst for moving forward with privatizing dining service for the new residence halls — clearly the most favored option among administrators.

3. No apparent consideration or serious calculations were undertaken to determine how current dining services could be retained and the university's bonding authority be used to finance additional needed dining halls as old bonds were retired and as new residence halls were brought on line.

4. As the administration began working up the details of its request for proposals, only the intervention of students, student groups, faculty and community stakeholders involved in area farming and the local food industry improved the proposal provisions and stipulations for purchasing local food and retaining current UK dining service workers.

5. As the residence hall privatization plans have unfolded, the university has proven to be the junior partner in this endeavor, allowing a private partner to basically call the shots on sustainability standards and energy efficiency without permitting tougher standards and greater energy efficiency to be built into these dormitories even though studies demonstrated their feasibility and long-term cost-effectiveness.

6. The arguments for retaining the present UK dining services remain strong, widely supported by key constituencies, and, as supporters suggest, financially feasible as old bonds are retired and new dining facilities need to be constructed.

7. Choosing a private vendor like Sodexo, Compass or Aramark risks going with a multinational corporation that is driven by bottom-line profit considerations rather than by concerns for quality food and healthy choices.

And given UK's past example, it is likely to lead to the administration shirking its responsibilities to treat student food choices as an educational exercise, and increasingly withdrawing from its supervision and oversight responsibilities to assure that such a private vendor lives up to its contractual agreements and responsibilities.

8. Granting that UK remains a needy university in terms of new buildings for teaching and research purposes, many of us believe student dining is a basic and integral part of the educational mission and should vie for investment through the university's bonding authority; by contrast, private vendors have little or no experience with the pedagogical and cultural dimensions of food and nutrition and would not regard such matters as even a secondary or tertiary interest, if in charge.

9. In seeking bids by outside contractors who, among other things, will be required to finance and construct new dining facilities estimated to cost between $15 million and $50 million and still generate a profit, administrators have made it clear that dining services constitutes a huge profit center. If this service is so lucrative, why can't UK do the same and keep those profits in-house?

10. In terms of town-gown relations, the university can best discharge its responsibilities toward the city and the surrounding farming countryside, as well as honor its land-grant mission, by joining local and regional stakeholders in helping to build a local-regional food economy — a still unmet goal that has garnered growing keen interest and civic organization in the community and on the Urban County Council. It will likely become even more critical in the coming decades impacted by changing climate and eroding national and continental food supply chains.

Once again, the university stands at a crossroad: it has an opportunity either to choose the neo-liberal, market-oriented approach to solving its problems by giving over yet another facet of its institutional infrastructure to private hands, or it can reassert its distinctive role and responsibility in a democratic society by retaining the great value and virtues of its present dining service as part of its land-grant mission and its ties to its campus constituencies, agricultural and restaurant elements in the community and surrounding region and to the citizens of the commonwealth.

As Robert Frost reminds us in his famous poem, UK can take the "road less traveled" these days in a world increasingly driven by corporate power and market values and promote an outcome that will have "made all the difference."


At issue: Nov. 18 commentary by Eric Monday, "UK inclusive in discussing food services" and Nov. 8 Herald-Leader editorial, "Best to keep food in the UK family; But school has set table to outsource"


About the authors: Ernie Yanarella, left, is a former University of Kentucky Board of Trustees faculty trustee and current member of the President's Sustainability Advisory Committee. Richard S. Levine is former UK professor of architecture and director of CSC Design Studio.


Ernie Yanarella is former University of Kentucky Board of Trustees faculty trustee and current member of the President's Sustainability Advisory Committee. Richard S. Levine is former UK professor of architecture and director of CSC Design Studio.

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