Keep local foods: UK dining contract must make it a priority

University of Kentucky officials said last month that in an effort to trim costs they are going to seek bids to privatize dining services.

That's created concern on campus and in the agriculture community that UK dining services' growing commitment to buying local foods — expected to reach $1 million this year — could be at risk.

The administration should carefully consider the larger balance sheet on this issue and do everything it can to continue buying and serving locally grown foods to its students.

Sourcing food locally is much more than feel-good window-dressing.

There's an obvious benefit to students. "We're getting a better product that tastes better," director of UK dining services Scott Henry told reporter Linda Blackford.

There's a benefit to the environment — less fuel burned in hauling food thousands of miles. Clearly Kentucky farmers benefit when a large market for their products opens up.

But it goes beyond that, said Lee Meyer, an agricultural economics professor and co-chair of the President's Sustainability Advisory Committee. UK dining has partnerships with the College of Agriculture that include students growing vegetables on a UK farm for use on campus, and developing sausages and other cured meats for use at UK and for sale to the public.

UK officials say that any contract with an outside food service will include provisions to maintain a commitment to local food but, as Meyer said, "it's hard to create a philosophical partner through a contract."

"It's not just about feeding students, they are collaborating with UK's research mission," Meyer said. This partnership helps UK's students learn how to grow, make and market food.

Can anything be more central to the mission of a land-grant university like UK?