Tom Eblen: New guiding hand for local food producers, buyers

Herald-Leader columnistJune 15, 2014 

Ashton Potter Wright is already at work as Lexington's first local food coordinator.

HERALD-LEADER Buy Photo

As a child growing up in Gratz Park, Ashton Potter Wright often walked downtown to the Lexington Farmers Market with her parents, who were early owners in Good Foods Co-op.

"They instilled in me that it's important to know where your food comes from and to support local growers and business owners," she said. "It makes sense to me, and I hope to help make it make sense to other people."

That will be a big part of Wright's new job as Lexington's first local food coordinator.

Wright, 29, started earlier this month in the pilot position, where she will work with Central Kentucky farmers to help them find markets for their meat and produce. She also will help educate and create more individual and institutional demand for locally produced food.

"With local food, you're not only helping the economy and the environment, but you're getting great, healthy, delicious food that's grown by somebody nearby," she said. "We're keeping dollars in the region and improving the health of the region."

Wright will be part of the city's Office of Economic Development. The job is funded through private grants, agriculture development funds and $25,000 from the city. Steve Kay, an at-large member of the Urban County Council, worked for several years to create the job.

"It's exciting, but it's a bit overwhelming," Wright said. "There's so much that can be done and so much that needs to be done."

Wright brings a strong background to the job. After graduating from Henry Clay High School and Rhodes College in Memphis, she worked at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and earned a master's degree in public health from Georgia State University while her husband, Jonathan Wright, went to Emory University's law school.

Last fall, Wright finished her doctorate in public health at UK and went back to Atlanta for a fellowship at the CDC. She also worked in Lee County, helping create a program where local farmers provided food for schools.

Kay assembled an advisory committee a couple of years ago that includes a who's who of local food players, including Nancy Cox, the new dean of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture; chef and restaurant entrepreneur Ouita Michel; youth nutrition activist Anita Courtney and Mac Stone of Elmwood Stock Farm, a national leader in the organic farming movement.

Wright said she will begin by working closely with the advisory committee to assess needs and opportunities, both immediate and long-term.

"Everyone has an opinion about what needs to be done," she said. "So these first few months are going to be spent listening and understanding."

There also are good ideas to be gleaned in Louisville, where Sarah Fritschner, a former food editor at the Washington Post and The Courier-Journal, has been the farm-to-table coordinator since 2010.

"There's a lot to be learned from her and also from cities across the country that are doing similar work," Wright said, citing Baltimore and Asheville, N.C., as examples.

Wright sees opportunities to educate young people about the importance of healthier eating and local food. Wright previously worked with Courtney on her Tweens Coalition and Better Bites youth nutrition programs, as well as her effort to bring fresh produce to two small markets in low-income Lexington neighborhoods.

Much of Wright's job will involve connecting local farmers to schools, hospitals and other institutions that could purchase their food. She said public schools already buy some local food, but could do much more if they had the right help.

Eventually, she hopes to develop more infrastructure for the regional food economy. Those include more local meat processing plants, such as Marksbury Farms in Danville, as well as aggregation, processing and distribution facilities for local vegetables and fruits.

Also, the region needs more commercial kitchens where farmers can take what they grow and turn it into value-added products, such as preserves and sauces, and process food for consumption off-season. Wright also is intrigued by the use of Internet technology to connect producers with consumers.

"People have been interested in local food here for years," she said. "But there are so many people and groups working on it here now that the time feels really right for the next big step."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415.  Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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