Jaci Carfagno: Keep it local: Entrepreneurial campus food services feeding, teaching, investing

Gregg Rentfrow pulled out meat that had been mixed with spices and fruit mix for bourbon apple bratwurst at UK's meat lab. The lab, working with UK food services, makes sausage and other meat products to sell and to serve on campus.
Gregg Rentfrow pulled out meat that had been mixed with spices and fruit mix for bourbon apple bratwurst at UK's meat lab. The lab, working with UK food services, makes sausage and other meat products to sell and to serve on campus. Herald-Leader

The University of Kentucky's eager flirtation with outsourcing food services brings to mind the old joke about Kentucky waiting until the Civil War was over before deciding to join the losing side.

There are plenty of reasons why UK should dump this idea, but the one that strikes me most forcefully is the lousy timing.

After over a century of preparing its own food, this land-grant institution in a state with a long history and deep roots in agriculture, as well as a huge economic dependence upon it, is contemplating handing that job over to an outside vendor. This is happening just as:

■ UK's own food service has successfully reinvented itself, using its huge buying power to support local farmers and get fresher food, and collaborating with faculty and students to share knowledge about producing, preparing and marketing food.

■ The whole country is in a headlong drive to recognize food as something grown, not manufactured.

■ Young people are becoming more engaged in where their food comes from, how it's produced and prepared.

The timing just couldn't be worse. So, why do it?

When you cut through the rationales on offer, it's pretty clear what this is all about: money.

UK's ambitious dorm destruction/construction has taken out cafeteria space while increasing the number of students who will live, and, therefore, eat on campus.

This creates a big problem for administrators. The legislature gives them limited authority to sell bonds to build things so, in effect, building dining space means postponing other projects, like cool new classrooms and labs for scientists who bring in big grants.

But there's a ready-made solution: just as UK has "partnered" with a company that's financing new dorms in exchange for the contracts to operate them, there are businesses that will ante-up for dining halls, if they can collect those student dining fees.

The business model is pretty simple and, for those running it, appealing — captive customers, guaranteed revenue stream, with regular price increases, plenty of cheap labor. Even a freshman in finance could make that spreadsheet sing.

From an administrator's point of view, this all makes sense. But from an educational perspective — not too much of a stretch for a university, I hope — it's a bundle of contradictions.

For one thing, it outsources knowledge and skills, said Lester Miller, manager and part owner of Stella's Deli in Lexington and a graduate of UK's Gaines Fellows program. In recent years, he said, UK food services, working with the meat sciences department in the College of Agriculture, has been purchasing whole animals free of antibiotics, steroids and hormones from local producers and the UK farm and then processing them to provide high-quality meat at competitive prices. Some meat is served in UK dining halls and some is sold at UK's Butcher Shop.

This educational cross-fertilization allows students to learn about the food chain from the farm through the kitchen to the cash register. "They're training people to break down whole animals ... not just ordering 10 cases of pre-portioned burgers," Miller said. Those whole animals, remember, don't come from crowded, concrete feedlots; they graze on and support our world-class Bluegrass.

Still, I have an uneasy feeling that somewhere in the highest ranks of the UK administration there's a belief that food may be an intelligent, well-educated person's hobby but not a vocation. I fear they think really smart people — the kind they want to attract — become scientists, engineers, researchers, lawyers, digital entrepreneurs, not people who produce or prepare food.

But consider a roster of former Gaines fellows — among the most distinguished students at UK — in the local food business.

There's Miller who, with his wife and fellow Gaines alum, Aumaine Mott, are partners in both Stella's Deli and Al's Bar. There's Jessica Clauser, founder and operator of 5th Street Apiary; and Ouita Michel, a leader in the local food movement whose string of enterprises includes the Holly Hill Inn, Wallace Station, Windy Corner and Midway Bakery.

These businesses enrich our communities, employ lots of people, support local agriculture and provide very good food for people to eat.

In any other field, you'd expect UK to be building on this admirable, even enviable, record as an incubator of innovators and entrepreneurs. Why throw that away because it's food?

I know, I know, UK says that a contractor would pledge to work with local producers, provide more healthful food, work with the College of Agriculture, and on and on. But, even if you really believe that a for-profit company responsible to its investors will have those goals uppermost in mind — a bit of a stretch — why outsource it?

Admittedly, I am the product of a family and culture where food is central to pretty much everything, but I've also spent decades observing and reporting on trends in business and society. Both perspectives tell me UK has the opportunity to build on the momentum and partnerships that have already been forged to distinguish itself in a very exciting way.

What if UK trumpeted an exciting dining scene that's deeply connected to local agriculture to attract students and faculty?

What if it fought Kentucky's food related ills — obesity, diabetes, heart disease etc.— by teaching young people in the cafeteria not just the classroom?

What if UK, where the College of Agriculture is second in enrollment only to Arts and Sciences, expanded dining services' growing partnerships with Kentucky farmers, thereby investing in the graduates it's producing?

What if UK saw which way the winds are blowing in this culture war and chose to be on the winning side?

Reach Jacalyn Carfagno at jcarfagno@herald-leader.com or 231-1652.