Best to keep food in the UK family, but school has set table to outsource

Thursday was the deadline for companies to submit bids to supply food to the University of Kentucky, an important step in UK's year-long exploration of outsourcing its dining service.

Students, faculty and many others in the community, including this paper, have urged UK to stick with its in-house food service, which has been praised for its products and services, its work with other departments at the school and efforts to buy from farmers in the region.

While there is a process for evaluating the bids, ultimately President Eli Capilouto will make the decision about who will provide food on UK's campus for the next 10 to 15 years.

A primary consideration will be the need for an infusion of cash to build new dining facilities to replace those torn down with old dorms and to serve the thousands of additional students who will live on campus as new dorms open, in addition to updating existing facilities.

The request for proposal, or RFP, that instructed companies on what needed to be in their bids required they demonstrate they have the substantial investment available, debt-free.

This makes it hard to imagine that continuing food service operations in-house is a genuine option. Although food services, which had revenue of $23.7 million last year, is profitable, it doesn't have that kind of money.

But Capilouto's drive to enhance campus life, and particularly the undergraduate experience at UK, argues for making every effort to maintain dining services as a university operation.

At a forum Wednesday evening, UK staff, including food services employees, raised concerns about the impact on the university and the student experience of going with an outside contractor.

They talked about things falling between the cracks when other services had been outsourced; they talked about a culture of service to students eroding when people work for someone other than UK.

Speakers also urged UK to look closely at the employment practices track records of firms that make the short list. This is a legitimate concern as several of the major private food service providers have been subject to such complaints, as well as issues about food quality.

The RFP asks bidders to demonstrate they will provide a "dynamic and challenging workplace" that "emphasizes safety, wellness and inclusion," but it didn't ask them to report if they had been the subject of lawsuits or other complaints about hiring practices, the treatment of workers or the quality of their products and services.

UK is absolutely right to work hard to improve the quality of life for students on its campus. If successful, this could improve recruiting, increase retention and enhance learning.

Food services will play a huge role in whether UK achieves those admirable, even essential, goals.

No matter how tightly the contract is written, UK will not be running the show and determining the culture if it outsources this essential service that has so much impact on the campus experience for thousands of students.