Food & Drink

Lexington soon will become Kentucky's second city with a local food coordinator

Food producers like Elmwood Stock Farm near Georgetown — whose produce is seen here at Lexington Farmers Market last year — and Marksbury Farms in Garrard County are part of a burgeoning local food economy.
Food producers like Elmwood Stock Farm near Georgetown — whose produce is seen here at Lexington Farmers Market last year — and Marksbury Farms in Garrard County are part of a burgeoning local food economy. Herald-Leader

Sarah Fritschner spent Thursday morning finishing preparations for a conference for local farmers.

Then she talked to the directors of a program in Madison, Wis., that gives vouchers for fresh, organic vegetables to consumers.

That was interrupted by a phone call. Someone needed 500 pounds of Kentucky sweet potatoes.

"So I dropped everything and I started making phone calls," Fritschner said.

As Louisville's Farm to Table coordinator, Fritschner is focused on making those connections between farmers and consumers — and growing a local food economy.

Lexington soon will become the second city in Kentucky with a local food coordinator.

It's long overdue, said Ouita Michel, one of Central Kentucky's most-acclaimed chefs and champion of buying foods grown and produced locally.

"Why should we ship our cattle to Indiana or Missouri for processing?" Michel said. "We can do that here. We need to strengthen our food infrastructure. It can be its own growth industry and add money to the economy. But it's also part of our culture and our history."

The Urban County Council approved the creation of the local food coordinator at Thursday's council meeting. The majority of the funding for Lexington's food program will come from a combination of local agriculture development money, private grants and $25,000 from the city. The total is more than $100,000. But not all of that will go toward salary.

Kevin Atkins, chief development officer for the city, said he hoped to advertise for the position soon. The local food coordinator will be in the mayor's economic development office and will report to Atkins.

Councilman Steve Kay, who has pushed for the position for three years, said the goal was to hire someone before March 1, when planting and growing season begins.

Kay said the goal of the position is to beef up what's already here and make connections between "food growers and consumers at all levels, individuals and corporate."

The idea came from a group of 20 people who meet each Monday at Alfafa restaurant to talk about local food. They knew about Louisville's program and wanted to duplicate it.

Kay said it would be in place in Lexington for at least a year as a pilot program. But he hopes it will continue if there is grant money for the position.

"It will be a regional position," Kay said. "Many of the buyers may be here, but the growers are in the surrounding counties."

Fritschner has been the Louisville Farm to Table coordinator since 2009. Her position is funded mostly through agricultural development funds, some private foundation money and city funds.

Fritschner sums up her work like this: "I do economic development. I help farmers make money."

The former Courier-Journal food editor learned quickly that to make farmers more money she needed volume. That means she focuses on University of Louisville and Jefferson County Public Schools cafeteria programs, which need lots of food.

She's persuaded U of L to buy one whole butchered cow each week from Marksbury Farms, a meat processor in Garrard County. Jefferson County Public Schools is buying lots of dark chicken meat from Kentucky farmers, so much in fact that Fritschner is getting calls from chefs complaining there isn't enough dark chicken meat on the market.

"So now I need more chicken growers," Fritschner said.

She also has connected butternut squash farmers to a processor in Burlington. And that food processor to a manufacturer in Jefferson County. The manufacturer uses the squash in chili that he now sells to public schools. Those schools have been told to serve more green and orange vegetables by the federal government.

Butternut squash farmers now have a new market, the processor has someone to buy its product and the manufacturer has a new product to sell. School nutrition officers have satisfied a government requirement.

"It's about solving problems," Fritschner said.

It's also about creating opportunities, Michel said.

Michel, who owns five restaurants in the Lexington and Midway areas, feeds customers what she preaches. All of her restaurants, from high-end Holly Hill Inn in Midway to sandwich shops Windy Corner Market and Wallace Station, use Kentucky-grown products.

For example, in October alone, Wallace Station used more than $20,000 in local meats and vegetables.

"When I saw that number I was blown away," Michel said. Since she opened Holly Hill in 2000, her restaurant group has spent more than $1 million on local meat and produce.

"I want to preserve our food culture and move it forward," Michel said. "This food coordinator position is about taking people back to the sources of food that we once used."