Creating strong local food economies has become a trend, if not a fad, all over the country. But the prospects in Kentucky seem more promising than in many places.
Kentucky's fertile soil, temperate climate, abundant water, central location and dispersed population have made the state an agriculture powerhouse for more than two centuries.
Since the collapse of the tobacco economy, more Kentuckians have been exploring ways to recreate and reinvent local food systems like those that prevailed before World War II.
But local food is not just an issue of local economics and self-sufficiency.
It is often more nutritious than food grown in huge quantities and shipped great distances. That's a big issue as America struggles with an obesity epidemic, lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and soaring health care costs.
Local food also just tastes better.
But there are big challenges, from processing facilities to distribution networks. The biggest challenge is this: how can locally grown food be both profitable for farmers and affordable for consumers, especially those with low incomes?
Those questions are at the heart of this year's Lafayette Seminar in Public Issues, an annual program sponsored by the University of Kentucky's Gaines Center for the Humanities. The seminar will explore these issues in three programs over the next three weeks, all of which are free and open to the public.
The seminar's keynote speaker at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Lyric Theatre is Robert Egger, who has spent 25 years feeding and providing food-related job training to poor people in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. His talk is called, "Revealing the Power of Food."
As a young nightclub manager, Egger volunteered at what he found to be a well-intentioned but inefficient soup kitchen for homeless people in Washington, D.C. The experience prompted him to start D.C. Central Kitchen in January 1989 by getting a refrigerated van, picking up food left over from President George H.W. Bush's inauguration and delivering it to local shelters.
The non-profit organization uses food donated by hospitality businesses and farms to feed hungry people and train poor people for food-related jobs. During 24 years as president of D.C. Central Kitchen, Egger helped start more than 60 similar community kitchens around the country.
Egger recently moved to Los Angeles to start LA Kitchen, which recovers fresh fruit and vegetables for use in a culinary arts job training program for men and women coming out of foster care or prison. He is author of the 2004 book, Begging for Change: The Dollars and Sense of Making Nonprofits Responsive, Efficient and Rewarding For All.
The seminar's second session, at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 1 at the Lyric Theatre, is a panel discussion called "Whose Farm to Whose Table?" It focuses on increasing access to local food in Central Kentucky's underserved communities.
Panelists are community garden activist Jim Embry; Mac Stone, co-owner of Elmwood Stock Farm and a founder of the Kentucky Proud program; Karyn Moskowitz of New Roots Inc. and the Fresh Stop Project; and Ashton Potter Wright, Lexington government's new local food coordinator. The panel will be moderated by Lexington food blogger and cookbook author Rona Roberts.
The final session, at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 9 at UK's W.T. Young Library, is a panel discussion moderated by former UK Agriculture dean Scott Smith. It will explore challenges of getting local food into universities, schools, businesses and other large institutions.
Panelists are Sarah Fritschner, Louisville's local food coordinator; John-Mark Hack, executive director of the Midway-based Local Food Association; UK agriculture professor Lee Meyer; and Tony Parnigoni, Aramark Corp.'s regional vice president.
The topic is especially timely given UK's controversial move to outsource its dining services to Aramark, the giant food corporation that is putting up $70 million to build new campus dining facilities.
Amid pressure from local food advocates, Aramark agreed to contribute $5 million to a new local food institute at UK and to purchase millions of dollars worth of food from Kentucky farmers.
"There has been a lot of buzz about local food and enhancing access to local food and capitalizing on the agricultural economy of the Bluegrass," said Phil Harling, a UK history professor who recently became director of the Gaines Center. "We're trying to bring together a bunch of different strands."