The University of Kentucky plans to set up an institute aimed at bolstering the consumption of locally grown food with the help of $5 million from the multi-national corporation Aramark, which recently took over the school's dining services.
Funding for the UK Food Connection will include $1 million to endow student internships and fellowships, $250,000 in start-up funding and $250,000 annually for 15 years to pay for staff, programming and research grants.
The institute is to be housed at a new $35 million dining center across from W.T. Young Library, also financed and built by Aramark. It will be headed for now by Scott Smith, former dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and the Environment.
"Agriculture is a way of life in Kentucky," UK President Eli Capilouto said. "Food is a central issue for our country and our world. The University of Kentucky should be — and is — leading the way in furthering scholarship as well as practical applications for Kentucky producers."
The institute is part of a $245 million deal that UK signed with Aramark this year. Capilouto decided to privatize UK's dining services after it became clear that several new dorms — also built in a public-private partnership — would bring thousands of new students to campus without a commensurate dining area.
Aramark has agreed to spend about $70 million on new dining areas.
To help offset concern about the privatization on campus and in Lexington, UK's proposal required creation of the food institute and more purchases of local food products — $2 million this year.
Aramark — which employs 270,000 people in 22 countries — has been trying to use more locally sourced food for the past several years, said CEO Eric Foss, who attended the UK announcement Tuesday.
"This is the next phase," he said at the following reception, as student waiters passed seared-tuna hors d'oeuvres to guests.
Aramark's contract will help Kentucky farmers, Foss said, and it could influence the company's operations on campuses elsewhere.
Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who has made local food production a priority to be included in his gubernatorial campaign, said he hopes the new institute can influence Lexington the same way local-food efforts have influenced Louisville's dynamic restaurant scene.
"We need to get that infrastructure developed in Lexington," he said.
In addition, UK's contract with Aramark could significantly change local food production.
"Farmers aren't going to take a chance on growing fruits and vegetables without a significant contract in place," Comer said.
Work at the institute will include research on food safety issues, new product development and various other projects, said Smith, the interim director.
"Kentucky has a unique economic development trajectory that has made local food more prominent," he said. "I see this as an opportunity to expand beyond this scale."
Another area for study is better infrastructure and integration of local agriculture, getting more local farmers connected to restaurants, groceries and schools.
Lexington recently hired its first local-food coordinator, Ashton Potter Wright, who also attended Tuesday's event.
"I think the local food movement is catching everyone's attention," Wright said. "Bigger players are feeling the demand from their customers."
Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359. Twitter: @lbblackford.