UK-Aramark partnership abysmal on local food purchases

By Todd Clark

The business of sustainable food produced for local markets is rapidly growing. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that 2014 local food sales exceeded $11 billion nationally. Tens of thousands of farms and other food production businesses targeting local markets populate the American landscape. Fortune, the Wall Street Journal and other national publications have recently featured articles on America's fastest-growing food-market sector.

Amid all this growth, it was quite disappointing to read about the University of Kentucky's new food service vendor, Aramark, and its abysmal performance in purchasing Kentucky farm products for the university community. Last year, UK leadership worked hard to convince us that concerns about its food service public-private partnership were unfounded. UK even contractually required Aramark to make substantial local purchases.

One of the supreme ironies in this situation is UK's receipt of approximately $30 million since 2001 from the state's Agricultural Development Fund for a variety of programs intended to reduce our dependence on tobacco. One of these programs was aimed at farmers interested in doing business with Aramark. It wasted the time of dozens of farmers and other local businesses in seminars and workshops. One part of UK supposedly wanted to help farmers sell to a market that another part of UK apparently knew was highly unlikely.

During the first year of a 15-year contract, Aramark reported buying $2,363,788 of "local" and Kentucky Proud products. The Philadelphia-based, publicly-traded food service giant responded to its new contract in the most cynical possible way. Aramark purchased $1,031,581 of "local" Coca-Cola, $39,344 of "local" Pepsi and $45,432 of "local" ice. Aramark did come through with $5,077 worth of Kentucky's own Ale-8-One.

Aramark reported another $1,228,014 of Kentucky Proud purchases.

Unfortunately, government programs like Kentucky Proud, another effort supported by the Agricultural Development Fund and supposedly designed to promote Kentucky agriculture, helps industrial food firms like Aramark by providing a state license to deceive the public. Aramark's Kentucky Proud purchases include almost $300,000 from Houston-based food distribution giant Sysco and almost $90,000 from Indianapolis-based Piazza Produce.

Another $147,380 worth of bread came from Cincinnati-based Klosterman Baking Company; $114,781 went to Clems Refrigerated Foods, a Lexington meat supplier. BLM Coffee Enterprise of Lexington received $99,606, and $57,282.11 went to John Conti Coffee, another Kentucky-based company.

Sysco and Piazza are unlikely to reveal what Kentucky farm products they sold to Aramark. We don't know if any Kentucky-grown wheat goes into Klosterman breads. If Clems sources any meat from Kentucky, it would be news to us. We are certain that although the commonwealth is home to the Kentucky coffee tree, we don't actually grow coffee here.

At the same time, UK's purchases from a local meat processor that sources animals exclusively from Kentucky farms declined from $88,453 before Aramark's contract to $11,929 after.

At least seven Kentucky farms that supplied UK in past years saw their sales go to $0 under Aramark. Perhaps most disappointing is the remark from a senior UK official, who was quoted as saying. "We met our goals." This comment, coupled with Aramark's track record, is an affront to Kentucky farmers and other sustainable local food businesses.

Members of the Kentucky General Assembly, candidates for governor and agriculture commissioner and other state leaders should stress to UK's administration how completely unacceptable Aramark's first-year performance was.

They should also begin to explore changes to the Kentucky Proud program to prevent big food companies from misleading the public. Aramark must understand it failed abysmally in meeting the goals of Kentucky farmers.

Public-private partnerships will always disregard local values in favor of economic rationality and the financial interests of private firms.

This disappointing neglect of our farm communities by our land-grant university should be unacceptable to all Kentuckians. Our public institutions should support our local economy, especially when they receive as much public financial support as UK.