Some worry privatization could end UK's effort to use locally grown food

University of Kentucky Dining Services spent about $800,000 last year on Kentucky-grown food products.
University of Kentucky Dining Services spent about $800,000 last year on Kentucky-grown food products. Herald-Leader

University of Kentucky Dining Services spent about $800,000 last year on Kentucky-grown food products, such as apples from Reed Valley Orchards, chickens from Pike Valley Farms and beef and vegetables from farmers all over the state.

"We're getting a better product that tastes better," said Scott Henry, director of UK Dining Services. "In some cases, we can work better deals so that it doesn't escalate food costs as much as you think."

Spending on Kentucky-grown food is expected to top $1 million this year, but some are worried that UK's local food efforts could be on the way out. Last month, UK officials announced they were going to put out bids to privatize dining services as part of ongoing efforts to solve budgetary woes.

"My concern is when we try to put things in a contract, we can put down the measurable dimensions but it's hard to create a philosophical partner through a contract," said Lee Meyer, an agricultural economics professor at UK and co-chair of the President's Sustainability Advisory Committee.

Using locally grown food is good for the state's economy, good for UK's students, and good for UK's outreach and service missions, Meyer said.

Meyer points to UK dining's partnerships with the College of Agriculture, that include working with students to grow vegetables on one of UK's farms for use on campus, and to develop sausages and other cured meat products that can be used at UK and be sold to the public.

"A land-grant university like UK has multiple missions," Meyer said. "It's not just about feeding students, they are collaborating with UK's research mission."

According to UK officials, privatized dining services has caught on among Southeastern Conference schools, although many of UK's benchmark schools still use in-house services.

A consultant is currently working on a report to see how many dining areas will be needed as UK reworks its campus with building projects. This spring, a request for proposals will be put out for all of UK's dining needs, including cafeterias, restaurants and catering. UK Dining Services itself will be asked to submit a bid.

Bill Harris, UK's director of purchasing, said the bid document will reflect UK's priorities for local products.

"Sustainability is important to students, and private contractors understand that's a need that has to be met," he said.

Steve Kay, an at-large member of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council, wrote to UK President Eli Capilouto on Dec. 20, asking him to retain the current food service structure. In the letter, Kay said the city hopes to hire a local food coordinator, who would work to increase the market for locally grown food.

"Since UK is the largest institution in our community and is also presently at the forefront of institutional efforts to purchase more of the food we eat from local producers, any change that makes that connection more difficult is of concern," Kay wrote.

Capilouto wrote back to say that consideration of local food vendors will be part of any discussions with potential vendors.

In a phone interview, Kay said he appreciated Capilouto's response and "I'm hopeful that the university's commitment to local food ... will be maintained."

"I think this is a critical juncture for the intention of including more local food," Kay said. "We're trying to create more capacity and more infrastructure, it would be concerning if the university was making decisions to make that more difficult."

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