Lexington's new food coordinator says she has tried to plant seeds for success

bmusgrave@herald-leader.comAugust 19, 2014 

During her initial two months as the city's first local food coordinator, Ashton Potter Wright has met with 130 people representing 75 organizations.

From school employees to local farmers, the Lexington native has been busy networking. Wright, who has a doctorate in public health from the University of Kentucky, also has developed a logo and a social media presence, has finalized goals for the program, and has met with an advisory committee of 20 to 25 people.

"I've had to hit the ground running," Wright said Tuesday.

The next 10 months are likely to be even busier as she tries to build the city's first farm-to-table program and capitalize on growing interest in promoting and growing local food.

On Tuesday, Wright updated the Urban County Council on her efforts and the next steps.

Before coming to Lexington, Wright was operational manager for first lady Michele Obama's Let's Move campaign through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She also has worked on a National Institutes for Health farm-to-table implementation grant in Lee County.

Lexington's program, which has a total budget of $125,000, is financed through a combination of local and state agricultural development funds, a grant from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, $45,000 in cash and in-kind contributions from the Urban County Government and private funding. Wright has a year to show that the pilot project is worth continuing.

"We will have to demonstrate that this is a worthwhile investment worth permanent funding," Wright said.

Lexington became the second city in Kentucky to have a local food coordinator. Louisville has had such a program for five years. A month before Wright was hired in Lexington, Eastern Kentucky hired a local food coordinator, who is based in Perry County but serves an entire region.

Wright has met with Louisville and Eastern Kentucky's farm-to-table programs so the three programs may coordinate and not duplicate one another's work, she said.

She also has met with officials and food producers in the surrounding six counties. Although her office is in Lexington, "this is a regional effort," Wright said.

She said she has learned a lot about existing programs and what's working, and she has gotten ideas for ways to improve capacity and build a stronger local-food economy. As part of her job, Wright must help improve access to locally grown fruits and vegetables to underserved populations.

But it takes more than just good ideas and good will to build an infrastructure around locally grown food.

Growers need markets to be profitable. That means selling to buyers such as schools and universities that need a lot of food. Wright has met with Fayette County Public Schools; the University of Kentucky and its food vendor, Aramark; and private schools, including Sayre School and the Lexington School.

But the Fayette school district doesn't have a centralized kitchen and receiving area, so many schools are not set up to receive a shipment of apples from one supplier and sweet potatoes from another. Wright has been talking to wholesalers about ways to include more locally grown produce in their sales to schools.

It's just one of many issues she is trying to work through.

"There's a lot of great ideas," she said. "But we have to figure out which ones of those can make the most meaningful impact. I think one of the challenges is prioritizing what needs to be done. There's a lot that can be done, but it's a matter of what we choose to focus our efforts on in this first year."

Another idea being explored includes converting a former LexTran bus into a mobile greengrocer that can go into areas not served by grocery stores. The idea is modeled after programs in Chicago; Portland, Ore.; and Bowling Green, Wright said.

"LexTran has already agreed to donate the infrastructure piece — the bus and the maintenance — which is a huge piece of the puzzle," Wright said. "It's really a matter of finding a group that can provide the operational support and the product."

In the short term, Wright said, she is looking at making tweaks to programs that are working, including Lexington's popular farmers markets. She is also working with the city's parks and recreation department to winterize Fifth Third Bank Pavilion downtown.

Last winter, the farmers market decided to operate from the pavilion rather than The Square, formerly known as Victorian Square, its traditional winter home. Despite the harsh winter, staying outside led to a 30 percent increase in sales from the previous winter, Wright said.

"The challenge for me is being patient," she said. As a results-orientated person, "I like to see things happen quickly. I realize with this, there will be some quick wins, but really this first year will be focused on relationship-building and leveraging those partnerships for future goals."

Beth Musgrave: (859) 231-3205. Twitter: @HLCityhall.

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