By the end of the 2018-2019 school year, the University of Kentucky will have bought 37,000 pounds of beef, 20,000 pounds of pork and 24,000 pounds of produce from farms all located within 80 miles of Lexington.
When UK turned its food services over to the Aramark corporation, it pledged to spend more money on local products. But two new initiatives have kicked that pledge into high gear and could potentially be a game changer for Kentucky farms.
The Local Salad Bar Initiative sources salad greens and other vegetables from six farms in the region, while the Marksbury Farm Whole Animal Program produces pastured-raised meat from its cooperative of farms.
“Both of these innovative farm-to-table initiatives are significant in that UK Dining is making consistent volume commitments to farmers for the duration of the academic year,” said Lilian Brislen, executive director of the UK Food Connection, a College of Agriculture, Food and Environment institute.
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They also take an incredible amount of organization, particularly when it comes to growing salads and greens in the winter months of the school year. For that, UK turned to the Bluegrass Food Connection, a consortium of local farmers.
“We actually customize a local food program,” explained Alice Chalmers, who directs that program. “We’re really looking at what all our farmers have, how we can plan week by week for the whole school year, for the volume UK needs. You have to make it seamless for the buyer — it’s all about that service aspect of planning, communication and aggregation of distribution.”
It’s a far cry from the days not too long ago when UK counted its largest local products as buying Coke and ice from a local distributor. UK’s local purchases have continuously increased, going up 5 percent to $1.7 million since last year. But it’s still miniscule; farm purchases make up just 10 percent of UK’s total food buy, while 7 percent goes to local businesses, such as coffee roasters. In fiscal year 2018, the total amount spent on dining was $10.4 million.
Still, the participants in the new two initiatives think they could be revolutionary for Kentucky agriculture, not just if UK keeps expanding with local food, but if other universities in Kentucky join the trend.
Mac Stone, who owns Elmwood Stock Farm, 500 organic certified acres in Scott County, calls the Salad Bar program “a potential game changer.
“Now they’ve seen the quality of our product, and they’ve added on things like chard and kale. They’re expanding their thoughts on how far we can take this thing.
“UK represents a volume where there’s room for a lot of people to play, it’s great,” Stone said. “We hope other institutions will get on board.”
Stone said the farm has added in some more farm workers to stay on through winter, cultivating salad and greens in Elmwood’s hoop houses, which keep the plants protected from the coldest temperatures. The partnership also led Elmwood to ratchet up its food safety program, documenting more requirements to meet UK’s standards.
Crooked Row Farm in Fayette County is also producing about 100 pounds of greens and cherry tomatoes for UK every week.
“It’s amazing,” said Thomas Sargent, who owns and works the farm with his husband, Robert Eversole. “It’s an honor to see our product in such a high-valued school.”
The Salad Bar initiative also includes produce from UK South Farm, Salad Days Farm, Rain and Suns Hilltop Farm and Courtney Farms.
When it comes to meat, Marksbury Farms, located close to Danville, serves as a distribution center for farmers who raise their animals on pastures without steroids or antibiotics. Every week, they’re selling three cattle and five hogs to UK.
“It’s a big deal that UK, as a land grant university, is making this investment in KY agriculture,” said Cliff Swaim, a Marksbury partner and director of wholesale. “They’re sourcing animals that spent their whole lives on pasture, which is going above and beyond.”
Ashton Potter Wright is the local food coordinator in Mayor Jim Gray’s office and helped connect several of the farms to UK.
“This predictable and consistent demand is critical to growing our local food economy,” she said. “I’m hopeful that we can engage other institutions around the Commonwealth to develop similar partnerships with Kentucky farmers.”
Aramark does dining services for Eastern Kentucky University, Western Kentucky University, Morehead State University and the University of Louisville. Carolyn Gahn, sustainability coordinator for Aramark at UK says she has begun to explore how these other schools could possibly break into the local supply chain through programs like UK’s.
“It’s been great to have UK as a pilot to see what works and doesn’t work as operations,” Gahn said. “It does cost more but these programs really highlight all the collaboration pieces of tangibly building the food system. When it fits with operations, it’s a no-brainer.”