Herald-Leader Editorial

Community debate key to UK food deal

June 12, 2014 

Here's an enthusiastic second to Eric Monday, chief financial officer at the University of Kentucky, who this week acknowledged the benefits of the feedback from students, faculty, staff and the community on outsourcing campus food service.

The input, he said, was "critical in arriving where we are today: with a potential partnership that will give us a best-in-class dining operation."

Monday and his boss, President Eli Capilouto, are both relative newcomers to Lexington, so they may have been surprised by community pushback when UK announced it was exploring outsourcing food services.

UK's own food service operation has made enormous strides in recent years, improving the quality and variety of what it serves, purchasing more from local producers, and partnering with other departments on campus on projects like the UK Butcher Shop.

Many of those who appeared at forums spoke in favor of keeping food service in-house.

They were unsuccessful in that effort but — to the credit of UK administrators — the deal struck with Aramark is better because it reflects the concerns raised at those meetings. Under the deal:

■ About 100 current food-service workers will remain UK employees, retaining tuition and other benefits.

■ Aramark is obligated to make a minimum of $2 million in local purchases in the first year of the contract, increasing 5 percent annually to 25 percent by the end of the 15-year contract.

■ UK's mission as a land-grant college will be supported through a minimum of $5 million in contributions for an innovation center that unites food teaching, research and education to develop and implement new programs.

In exchange for getting a lock on food at UK, including all athletics venues, Aramark will pay out about $245 million in new building construction, renovation costs and commissions to UK. The university will own the buildings at the end of the contract.

Initially, the cost of meal plans will decline while the number of places students can eat and the number of brand-name options will expand, as will the hours that they're open.

This all sounds good, and we hope it will be.

But Aramark is a huge multinational corporation that answers to its stockholders on the profitability of its operations.

Just last month, when Aramark executives talked to stock analysts about second-quarter earnings they said the company could protect profits even as food prices rise, "with pricing and menu engineering," according to a Wells Fargo report.

UK will have a staff person monitoring the contract to assure compliance, and that person must guard against menus engineered to save money for Aramark at the expense of quality on campus.

In the end, despite all the buildings and the money, this is about food and the people who consume, prepare and produce it.

UK has also said it will appoint an advisory committee of students, faculty and staff.

Given the broad-based community interest in this topic, that committee should also include representatives of Central Kentucky's vibrant food scene and farm economy.

The city's newly hired local food coordinator, Ashton Potter Wright, who holds a doctorate in public health from UK, should be included.

A representative of the farming community could help assure the locally sourced food is actually produced here, not just purchased from a wholesaler in the area.

Finally, while about 100 food service workers will remain UK employees, with benefits that include a significant tuition benefit, the newly hired Aramark workers are assured no such benefit under this contract.

We urge UK, Kentucky's flagship university, to find a way to help campus food service workers, and their children, afford a college education if they want one.

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