Growing local food economy at UK, at last

The Fresh Food Company is among the restaurants in The 90 dining complex built by Aramark on the University of Kentucky campus.
The Fresh Food Company is among the restaurants in The 90 dining complex built by Aramark on the University of Kentucky campus.

There’s good news: The University of Kentucky will no longer count soft drinks and ice as local food products.

That might seem obvious — how can they be called food, much less local? — but it’s evidence of how complicated defining both food and local can be that it has taken a few years of work and debate to reach this point.

There was a huge debate when the University of Kentucky announced that it would seek bids from outside food-service providers.

A major concern was that a large for-profit company would not continue the effort to source food from local producers that UK’s in-house food service had stepped up in recent years.

It seemed reasonable that UK, with a big agriculture-education program in a state where agriculture is important to the economy, could and should use its purchasing might to support Kentucky farmers.

Recognizing this, the final deal with food services giant Aramark included an obligation to buy 20 percent of its purchases from local producers to provide the campus community with fresher food and support the local farm economy.

However, the value of that commitment was called into question last year when Linda Blackford reported that Aramark counted $1 million in Coca-Cola purchases among the $2.3 million it had spent locally for food. The local total included much smaller purchases for Pepsi and Ale-8-One products and ice.

UK officials contended that Aramark was well within its contractual commitment to count those products as local purchases, but the huge university and the corporation did agree to reconsider how “local” products are counted.

Blackford’s follow-up this week found some progress and what appeared to be a genuine effort to sort out what’s local and how to count it.

Total purchases that can be traced to actual local food production rose about 20 percent, to about $470,000.

Equally important, in the future, instead of defining “local” as something bought from a certain area — meaning a Lexington Coca-Cola distributor counts as a local producer — purchases will be tracked according to how much comes from local farms.

This is harder than you might think.

For example, Aramark buys from local processors including Boone Creek Creamery, but drilling down deeper, it’s important to know how much milk the creamery buys from Kentucky dairies. The same is true for Kentucky companies that provide mixes for things like soups or bakery products. There’s value in supporting local businesses, but it doesn’t support the agricultural community unless the processors are buying at least some of their raw materials from local farms.

To help sort this all out, and track it, UK and Aramark have agreed how to define, for example, products that have “majority Kentucky food source” (the primary ingredient comes exclusively or predominantly from Kentucky farms and specific farms can be identified); “some Kentucky food source” (more than 10 percent can be identified as from Kentucky farms); and the self-explanatory “no significant Kentucky farm source.”

It’s complicated and no doubt far from perfect, but nothing counts in the economy unless it can be counted.

Local food advocates must continue to keep a close eye on how Aramark spends its food dollars, while recognizing that both the food giant and UK have made a legitimate effort toward accountability in this important area.