Ky. Voices: Focus on local food part of UK mission

Lilian Brislen is treasurer of the Community Farm Alliance.
Lilian Brislen is treasurer of the Community Farm Alliance.

Community Farm Alliance's 1,500 members, board and staff are concerned about the University of Kentucky's proposed outsourcing of dining services to a private contractor.

For 27 years, our members have worked with UK to help fulfill its mission as not just an institution of higher learning but also as a leader in guiding communities across Kentucky to a better future and to wisely use its public resources granted by the 1862 Morrill Act.

For 75 years UK has been a vital partner of tobacco communities, providing resources that enabled tobacco farmers to prosper and consequently allowing many of their sons and daughters to attend the university. When the time came for those communities to transition beyond tobacco, UK again helped lead the way in developing local and regional food systems that ensure fair prices for the food farmers raise.

This is exemplified by UK dining's commitment to "walk the talk" by increasing its purchases of Kentucky Proud products to an impressive 12 percent of food expenditures.

That's $950,000 put into our Kentucky food economy, and no doubt some of those funds are coming back to UK when farmers proudly send their children to study at our flagship institution.

UK, justifiably, has received substantial investment from the Kentucky Agricultural Development Fund to support these efforts, which is to say UK dining is implementing work in which the entire state is invested.

In our Agricultural Legacy Initiative, Community Farm Alliance is working to build pathways to the land for the next generation. This effort takes more than farmers in the fields, so we work to build the markets, infrastructure and demand for a robust agricultural sector that can support family farms.

Our members regularly look to the leadership of UK College of Agriculture's Bob Perry and UK dining's executive chef Scott Kohn. Their work on partnerships such as the UK butcher shop and the Kentucky Hamburger Alliance is an inspiration for what a robust farm and food economy could look like.

What would it say to the agriculture students if UK's administration decides that supporting the local agricultural economy while feeding our campus community is just too much of a bother?

What would it say to students who have been inspired by the growth of local and regional food systems, by the pride in local ownership and leadership, and were thinking that maybe they could make a go of it on the family farm?

This issue goes far beyond UK's internal economics to the example set and the leadership and expertise the dining services staff has brought the university and our community. UK dining leaders have conducted extensive outreach and education.

For example, they have worked with Louisville's Farm to Table coordinator Sarah Fritschner to deliver several farm-to-campus workshops, sharing best practices developed by UK with other institutions and food distributors.

Consider the story of one young farmer. In his words:

"Last year, UK dining bought a substantial amount of processed butternut squash from KHI Foods in Northern Kentucky. That squash came from my farm and helped set the stage for a substantial increase in my production for KHI this year. Getting started in farming isn't easy, but having this sort of wholesale market outlet for my farm gave me the confidence to keep moving forward with my dream of full-time farming. It's both the direct farm purchases that UK dining is making and the purchases from third-party players dedicated to working with Kentucky growers that make a committed institutional partner like UK so crucial."

Farmers able to keep working the land their families have held for generations, fresh food that tastes of home on students' plates, dining leaders who are invested in the future of the commonwealth because they bleed blue just like the rest of us: these are the dividends that UK dining pays our community.

Can the same be said of a publicly traded or non-local corporation? Whose best interest would they have in mind?

Should UK continue to pursue this outsourcing strategy? Will it include specific and substantial goals to support direct farm impact for Kentucky's farmers? Will the university continue to serve Kentuckians beyond the classroom? Will UK continue to walk the talk?

Community Farm Alliance members and all Kentuckians wait for UK President Eli Capilouto's answers.

This column is excerpted from a letter sent to the UK president.

At issue: April 28 Herald-Leader editorial, "Nourishing UK's mission; dollars alone could not offset cost of outsourcing food services"

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