Linda Blackford

Lexington Convention Center, others need to join UK, Transy in supporting local food

By now we know for certain that our national food system — based on cheap prices, easy access and enormous quantities of sugar and processed fare — is making us sick and degrading our land. We continue to get fatter as factory farms force both workers and animals into inhumane conditions and practices.

But here and there are glimmers of positive change: the multiple small farmers around the Bluegrass who bring fresh, locally produced food to farmers markets, and the growing numbers of people who buy it. And now, we see larger entities who recognize that need and have the power to actually change the systems, both because it’s good for them and good for the larger community.

I’m talking about schools like the University of Kentucky and Transylvania University whose require their food vendors to buy a certain percentage of fresh, local food. After an initial stumble, when it counted soft drinks and ice as local purchases, UK and Aramark have become leaders in local purchasing for their cafeterias.

In fiscal year 2019, Aramark bought $2.6 million in local food and food business purchases for UK, which is 146 percent of the required minimum of its contract with UK. That’s 23 percent of total food purchases, up from 18 percent from the year before.

Of particular note is the whole animal program. Last year, Marksbury Farms, which sell only certified pastured raised and humanely handled animals, “sourced three whole cattle and four whole hogs per week, which came from 14 cattle producers and four pork producers,” this year’s UK food report notes.

The UK Dining salad bar program has also allowed local farmers to expand production because they know they have a market.

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The programs “directly impact several Central Kentucky farms in a meaningful way and both programs have the potential to be scaled and replicated at other institutional venues that are interested in providing fresh, wholesome food and supporting Kentucky farmers,” said Ashton Potter Wright, the Bluegrass Farm to Table coordinator, who helps large entities connect with providers.

She worked on a new partnership between Transylvania University and its new dining provider, Bon Appetit. Marc Mathews, Transy’s vice-president for finance, said the school had wanted to shift to more local food, but its previous food provider Sodexo could not meet the demand.

“We wanted food to be a differentiator,” Mathews said. “There’s an interest in good and healthy eating.”

In the first year of the contract, Bon Appetit has already exceeded the 20 percent baseline in local purchasing, Mathews said. Students have noticed the difference, he said, “they’re going to main course line instead of straight to the pizza and burgers.” Transy’s dining halls are open to the public if anyone wants to try the food.

Wright has also been working with the Lexington Convention Center, which is poised to sign a new contract with Levy Restaurants, a massive food service company based in Chicago, which also serves the Kentucky Horse Park, Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Speedway.

The Kentucky Horse Park’s contract with Levy does not require local purchasing, although Levy says it tries to buy local when possible, said Horse Park spokeswoman Kerri Howe.

Fayette County School Superintendent Manny Caulk said the district “is committed to growing our spending with local farmers through our Farm to School program and we’re proud to have nearly tripled our investment over a five-year period,” he said. Fayette spent $72,146 with local farms last year and expects to spend $100,000 this year, an increase of 38 percent. That’s about 1.4 percent of the $7 million food budget.

Bill Owen, executive director of the convention center, said the Levy contract will have a mandatory minimum of local purchasing, but it’s not yet clear exactly what that will be. Because of the state’s $60 million commitment to the convention center renovation, local purchasing will include the entire state of Kentucky.

That contract could be voted on as early as Thursday. The details will matter as to how much actual local purchasing is done. Let’s hope the Lexington Center board will recognize the worth of serving better food and stimulating the local farm economy. There are plenty of models to follow, right here in our community.

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