Nourishing UK's mission; dollars alone could not offset cost of outsourcing food services

The University of Kentucky administration's interest in outsourcing food services has given rise to a debate on campus and beyond, as it should.

Opponents cite concerns over UK's land-grant university mission, support for local foods, sustainability and other issues.

A driving force for the administration, in addition to upgrading dining, is capturing capital to replace the dining facilities that will be lost as new dorms replace old and increase the on-campus population.

At its heart, this debate centers around one question: Is food services simply another chore that has to be done on campus or is it central to the school's mission?

If the former, then outsource away so those charged with the real business of UK can get on with their work. If the latter, outsourcing makes no sense.

We think outsourcing makes no sense.

UK has a large and well-regarded College of Agriculture in a state and a region that rely on agriculture, at a period when small farmers are still trying to transition from tobacco to food.

UK is uniquely positioned to guide, inform and support that transition while improving food quality on campus and contributing to education about food and agriculture.

UK's dining services, by all accounts, has transformed itself in recent years, engaging with local food producers and processors as well as students. It gets generally high marks in customer satisfaction surveys, is self-sustaining and profitable.

It has also reached out to the College of Agriculture, helping expand meat processing education to include value-added products, like sausages, country hams, bacon and specialty cuts. Those products, all made from locally produced meat, now appear on plates across campus and in a retail shop on campus.

"It's a super partnership, and the ultimate outcome is a positive benefit for students by expanding their education and opening their eyes," Animal and Food Sciences Chairman Bob Harmon said earlier this year.

Why give all this up?

Money. It will likely cost $30 million to $40 million to meet the administration's goals. Small change compared to the cost of dorms or improvements to athletic facilities, but it's money that, if an outside vendor steps in, could go to other projects on campus.

The administration has a serious responsibility to consider that reality.

But that's not the only reality. Dining services is self-supporting and profitable with the potential to pay off the debt undertaken to build the new facilities. Once paid, future profit would be captured on campus.

Even more important, the knowledge, experience and collaborative relationships will be captured and retained as part of UK's unique culture.

The three finalists for provost who visited the campus last week repeatedly emphasized certain values: Inter-disciplinary work, collaboration, communication, entrepreneurship, the unique potential for land-grant universities.

Every outside company that bids on UK's business will agree to buy local foods, meet sustainability goals and provide other amenities.

Not one of them will be able to make the case that UK food services has already demonstrated, that its work is central to UK's mission.

Why give all this up?