Herald-Leader Editorial

Debate over UK dining worthwhile; Private contractor must use local foods

February 6, 2014 

The University of Kentucky disappointed many but surprised few,when it announced Tuesday that it will outsource dining services.

Advocates, on and off-campus, had urged UK to keep the food business in-house and continue to use it to boost the local farm economy, improve the quality of food on campus and teach agriculture and other students about growing, preparing and marketing food.

This argument aligned with the explosion of interest in and economic activity surrounding locally grown foods in this area, from community-supported agriculture to farmers markets to farm-to-table menus at restaurants.

The same day as UK's announcement the American Farmland Trust said it will hold a national event, the Farmland, Food and Livable Community Conference, in Lexington this fall, and last week city government created a position for a local food coordinator to encourage the farm economy by facilitating the link between farms and consumers.

Alas, those compelling developments and arguments came up against the reality that UK's ambitious, outsourced dorm building brought a triple, and self-imposed, whammy of tearing down existing dining space in residence halls, building new halls without dining rooms, and increasing the number of students living on campus.

The bottom line was that UK needs $25 million to $50 million in new dining facilities. This comes after years of declining state support for higher education.

Although food services is profitable, and so could use its own revenues to pay off bonds for new construction, UK administrators place a higher priority on using bonding capacity for other things, like labs and classrooms.

"We simply do not have that capacity internally," said Eric Monday, UK executive vice president for finance and administration.

People might wonder if all the advocacy for local control was a waste of time, that the decision was made long ago.

If the finance VP says UK can't ante up, then it's hard to understand how keeping the business in-house was ever a viable alternative.

But the effort wasn't wasted.

The well-reasoned and passionate arguments about UK's important role in literally nurturing its students and supporting the local food economy have borne fruit.

Monday said the final agreement with an outside vendor will contain specific goals for buying locally produced food and using the Kentucky Proud program as well as maintaining existing partnerships such as those with the student-run Lemon Tree Restaurant and the College of Agriculture's Butcher Shop.

The challenge now is to insist that UK's private partner meets those goals. UK noted Tuesday that the agreement will be a public document, as it must be.

The administration should also commit to reporting, at least annually, on progress toward meeting those goals.

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