LEXINGTON, Ky. - When a market opens or expands, farmers take notice. That was the case recently when The Food Connection at UK hosted a one-day workshop to connect Kentucky food producers with the new Aramark-managed UK Dining.
On a recent morning, the meeting room at the Fayette County Extension office swiftly filled to capacity with about 80 farmers and food processors, reinforcing with organizers the interest among local food purveyors in being able to provide the University of Kentucky with fresh food for campus dining rooms.
“The turnout this morning is testament to the perceived potential for the impact on farms and our food economy in Kentucky. It’s very exciting to be involved in that,” said Scott Smith, the Food Connection’s director.
The purpose of The Food Connection at UK, which is administered by the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, is to promote a healthy, sustainable food economy.
“Our mission is focused on the campus first, but in the end, it’s intended to address the opportunities of the entire commonwealth,” Smith told the assembly. “On the campus we’ll serve as a hub and an information source. We will also have very distinct and clear sourcing and be another tool for UK Dining to use to satisfy its contract. In satisfying those terms, we can have a positive healthy impact on Kentucky’s food economy and the farm economy, in particular.”
UK agricultural economist Lee Meyer, in his workshop introduction, acknowledged to the group that farmers are always seeking new local-food markets.
“We know we can produce, but where do we get that demand? Now that Aramark has taken over UK Dining, we have this great opportunity. How do we use that opportunity in a practical way to generate more sales and really help our agriculture in central Kentucky and throughout the state grow?”
Aramark’s contract with UK commits the company to purchasing $1.2 million in Kentucky Proud products and $800,000 in local products in the first year. In this case, local refers to products originating in either Fayette County or the six adjoining counties. The contract also stipulates purchasing will increase by 5 percent for each of the first five years. By 2024, 20 percent of UK Dining’s food and beverage purchases will be Kentucky Proud and locally sourced. By 2029, that obligation will increase to 25 percent.
The contract was, in part, the result of a strong advocacy group that wanted to make sure UK Dining continued to support local food and Kentucky Proud and partnered with UKAg in the land-grant mission of education, research and outreach.
“In my mind, the contractual obligations should be the starting point, the price of entrance, not where we want to end after Year One,” said Jonathan Parker, Aramark resident district manager. “We’re going to try as hard as we can to surpass those goals in the first few years.”
The workshop was fairly evenly attended by livestock producers, produce growers and food processors. Throughout the day, they listened to and interacted with speakers concerning GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certification, third-party audits, and safety measures; opportunities for whole food sales as well as sales of value-added products; liability insurance and MarketReady, a UKAg training program that addresses the risks and relationships small producers must manage as they work to develop supplier relationships. Attendees also had the opportunity to meet UK Dining personnel and representatives from food distributors Piazza Produce and Sysco and processors KHI and Custom Food Solutions.