When the University of Kentucky handed control of its food services to Aramark in 2014, food activists lobbied to require the multinational corporation to buy 20 percent of what it serves students from Kentucky farmers and local food producers.
Aramark agreed, and in its first year on campus the company met the lofty goal by spending $2.3 million on locally produced and Kentucky Proud products, seemingly providing a major boost to local food economies.
But nearly half of that money was spent on soft drinks and ice, including $1 million for The Coca-Cola Co., according to records obtained by the Herald-Leader under the state Open Records Act.
"I am astonished," said Sarah Fritschner, coordinator of Louisville's Farm to Table program. "It's super disappointing and a cynical attempt to meet the expectations of the people who expressed them before the contract was signed."
Aramark spent $1.1 million on food products produced in Fayette County or the six contiguous counties, and $1.2 million on products labeled Kentucky Proud by the state Department of Agriculture. It spent a total of $10 million on food in fiscal year 2015.
In the local column, Aramark reported spending $1 million for Coca-Cola beverages, $45,000 for ice from Home City Ice, $39,000 for Pepsi products and $5,000 for drinks from Winchester-based Ale-8-One.
Although Coca-Cola is an Atlanta-based corporation, Bluegrass Coca-Cola Bottling is on Leestown Road and is part of Coca-Cola Bottling Consolidated in Charlotte, N.C. Attempts to reach a spokesperson for the company Wednesday were unsuccessful.
UK officials said Aramark's numbers were positive.
"We hit our goals that we set for our dining partner in the contract, and that is good news," said Melody Flowers, UK's director of strategic analysis. "We're continuing to work with them, and they're trying to work to find more sources to improve these numbers."
Before hiring Aramark, UK spent more than $500,000 on Coca-Cola products each year since 2012 and has long classified them as local products. Aramark was required by its contract with UK to spend $800,000 on local products and $1.2 million on Kentucky Proud products. It would not have met those requirements without counting the Coca-Cola purchases.
"Clearly the 'local' metric did not accomplish the intended outcome — local, healthy, sustainable food," said Scott Smith, director of the UK Food Institute, which was funded with $5 million from Aramark to bolster local food economies. "We believe there are a lot of discussions that will occur to correct that flaw in the metrics."
Ashton Potter Wright, the Bluegrass Farm to Table program coordinator in Lexington Mayor Jim Gray's office, said it was clear from the time the contract was signed that the definition of local products would be problematic.
"They're meeting the letter of the contract, but they're not meeting the spirit of the contract," Wright said.
Local food activist Anita Courtney and others said they thought Aramark would in good faith purchase locally grown, healthier food to help both UK and local farmers.
"One million dollars spent on Coke is certainly not in keeping with the intention of the guidelines," said Courtney, director of Lexington's Tweens Nutrition and Fitness Coalition. "The intention was to increase sales for local farmers and to promote local food, and it doesn't do any of that. This is just the kind of thing we were worried about, and it's particularly bad that it's for a sugary liquid."
UK spokesman Jay Blanton said the contract's definitions have always been public, and that consistency would allow UK to hold Aramark accountable. While UK will work to improve local food markets, it would be "unfair to change the rules in the middle of the game," Blanton said.
Aramark's local purchases also include those made by Sysco and Piazza Produce, which are its main food vendors.
In fiscal year 2015, Sysco spent almost $296,419 on local and Kentucky Proud products and Piazza almost $98,927 on the two categories. UK provided a list of companies from which Sysco and Piazza purchased local and Kentucky Proud products, but UK would not disclose how much was spent with each company.
Sysco's vendors included Kenny's Farmhouse Cheese, Lexington Pasta, Weisenberger Mill, Bourbon Barrel Foods and Uncle Charlie's Meats. Piazza's vendors included Boone Creek Creamery, Applecreek Specialty Foods, The Chop Shop and Evans Orchard.
Lexington Pasta owner Lesme Romero said he contracts with Sysco to sell his products around the region, including in Louisville and Cincinnati, but did know how much pasta goes to UK.
Overall, he said, UK's contract and others have pressured big food providers such as Aramark to shop locally.
"Before they were not even thinking about us," Romero said.
Agriculture Commissioner Jamie Comer, who oversees the state's Kentucky Proud marketing program, said he didn't consider Coke to be a local food.
"Coke doesn't benefit Kentucky farmers," he said.
Comer said he was well aware of how difficult it is to match local food producers with big food providers, particularly since many small farmers struggle to meet the stringent safety requirements of big companies.
"Having said that, I think they have the ability to buy more than what they bought," Comer said. "It's a little more expensive, but that's the commitment they made when they signed the contract."
UK partnered with Aramark last year after realizing its deal with a private developer to build thousands of new dorm rooms would require more eating spaces as well.
Some student groups and local food advocates opposed the Aramark deal, a $245 million contract that included $70 million to build new eating spaces and $5 million for the Food Institute.
"Agriculture is a way of life in Kentucky," UK President Eli Capilouto said at the unveiling of the institute. "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."
Agriculture professor Lee Meyer was on the committee that helped choose Aramark and negotiate the contract.
"We slipped up," he said Wednesday. "Coke creates jobs, too, but not in the same way that buying beef from local farmers does. What I would like to do is add another metric that is a direct farm-to-table impact that is added to the contract or at least reported."
Fritschner and Wright also have pledged to do whatever they can to help UK and Aramark improve local purchasing.
"The best outcome of the release of these numbers would be earnest and sincere dialogue on the part of both Aramark and UK's operations to explore how to make a meaningful impact on Kentucky's farmers," Fritschner said.