UK should push for more local foods

It is deeply disappointing that here in Fayette County — in the heart of a region that counts agriculture as a major economic and cultural force — the largest local "food" purchase made by the company that won the bid to nourish those on the University of Kentucky's campus is Coca-Cola.

Reporter Linda Blackford found that in its first year feeding the UK community, Aramark's $1.1 million spent on local food purchases — defined as coming from Fayette and the six surrounding counties — included $1 million for Coca-Cola beverages, $45,000 for ice, $39,000 for Pepsi products and $5,000 for drinks from Ale-8-One in Winchester.

Kentucky Proud purchases of $1.2 million include almost $300,000 to Sysco, a food products company with over $46 billion in national sales last year.

That Sysco number, though, is a black box because, while UK provided a list of local companies Sysco bought from, it didn't give the amount spent with each.

So, from the outside it's impossible to tell if these were purchases that could have a meaningful economic impact on local food providers.

UK argues that Aramark is playing by the rules of its contract, a public document. It wouldn't be fair "to change the rules in the middle of the game," spokesman Jay Blanton told Blackford.

Perhaps the rules don't need to change so much as to be refined. It may be hard to craft a definition of a local product but we can do better than this.

Few, other than the stockholders of Aramark and Coca-Cola, benefit when Coca-Cola beverages bottled in Lexington are counted as local products. Aramark technically meets a goal, but without increasing the health of the local agriculture economy or of UK students.

The contract with UK obligated Aramark to a minimum of $2 million in local purchases in the first year, increasing 5 percent annually to 25 percent by the end of the 15-year deal. The required annual increases are an opportunity for Aramark to tap genuinely local food producers.

UK has other leverage, if it wants to use it.

Aramark wants more contracts at more campuses and to expand into other areas such as facilities services.

In a 2013 prospectus Aramark noted that education and health care "represent attractive growth opportunities." Also, "We believe having an on-site team successfully providing one service positions us well to expand the services we provide."

Aramark wants to sell more to UK and expand onto other campuses. Having UK as a satisfied customer helps on both counts.

UK is in excellent position to nudge Aramark into buying more products that come from Kentucky soil and — through its College of Agriculture, Food and Environment — help the company connect with farmers who grow in sufficient quantities.

There is still abundant opportunity for a win for Kentucky farmers, Aramark and the UK community. UK's administration should seize that opportunity.