September 13, 2006 | By: Carol Lea Spence
LEXINGTON, KY.

In a university lab, a government office, a corporate boardroom or on a family farm, great ideas for producing, marketing and distributing high quality foodstuffs abound. Too often those ideas don’t reach their potential for the simple reasons that they don’t have a support system or they exist in a communication void. Sometimes, equally as important as scientific or business knowledge, networking skills are vital to getting a good concept off the ground. That’s the idea behind the creation of the Food Systems Initiative in the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture.

The Food Systems Initiative is a one-year pilot program designed to act as a networking hub. It will connect university expertise with government policymakers, local entrepreneurs and corporations. 

“For quite some time the college has recognized that it has a great potential to coordinate the efforts of many different programs that deal with food, and that we would benefit from a kind of multi-departmental college level coordination,” said Nancy Cox, associate dean for research in the UK College of Agriculture. 

The College of Agriculture has a natural tie to the state’s food system with programs in the School of Human Environmental Sciences that deal with consumers, food management, hospitality management and nutrition, as well as food production programs in the departments of Animal and Food Sciences, Horticulture and Agricultural Economics.

“We have a sector now that takes us from the producer to the consumer within the college,” Cox said. “We’ve done a lot of planning on how we might best capitalize on all those strengths. And having a coordinator for the overall program is a significant first step into our overall program planning.”

Bob Perry (pictured above right) is that new coordinator. The former director of food service for the Kentucky Department of Parks, Perry was responsible for getting locally grown produce on state resort park menus. He also fostered a regulatory change that allowed the state to purchase local farm meats and dairy products. With more than 25 years in the hotel, restaurant and tourism industry, Perry is perfectly positioned to be the new network’s “hub.”

“There are all sorts of food initiatives going on, and everybody can learn from everybody else. That’s what a food system is, and being the hub of the network is to try to keep information flowing,” he said. “I’m not the expert in anything agricultural or anything (related to) food manufacturing. I’m experienced at networking and bringing people together, and that’s what needs to happen.”

“One of Bob’s jobs will be to help us get the most out of our individual strengths in serving the Kentucky food industry, the local entrepreneurs, as well as ultimately some of the really big companies that are headquartered in Kentucky,” Cox said. “Bob is very well-positioned to help us network with those sorts of people.”

Perry’s new duties include promoting development of new food enterprises in Kentucky, specifically linking to Agricultural Development Board programs that concentrate on tobacco-dependent counties. He is also to advise programs involving sustainable and local food production, do occasional class lectures or seminars and provide programs for county agents and specialists. The new center would work in close partnership with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and the Governor’s Office of Agricultural Policy. Cox says UK and the state have similar missions to promote Kentucky-based products.

“We really have worked hand-in-glove with those two agencies on many different programs, and Bob fits into that network very well,” she said. “He was known to both of those groups and knew both of those groups, so he’s the perfect liaison with them.”

The Initiative is also charged with reaching out to other areas of the university outside the college. UK Dining Services is currently testing the feasibility of using locally grown produce in all 20 campus restaurants. Perry will be helping them fine tune the new system.

“They’ve been trying to buy local and I’ve got the experience, coming from (Kentucky Department of) Parks where I had 21 different restaurants,” he said. “We’re very similar. I understand what they’re up against, which is huge.”

Perry envisions that other projects may require the expertise of the wider university community. He talked about a project now in the planning stages, where a third-party corporation could be created to help Kentucky beef producers more effectively market 

“We need legal help, so we can go to the law school. We need business planning help, so we can go to the business school. We definitely need production help, so we can go to Animal and Food Sciences. We need to look at shelf life, so we can go to microbiologists and get shelf-life testing done,” he said. “And there’s a real opportunity for the university to do tasting panels.”

Perry’s devotion to a locally based food system stems, in part, from a far-flung food background that included a stint living and cooking in Provence, France. 

“It was really interesting that when I got into local purchasing of sustainable food, all those memories started coming back from the time I spent in France and how their food system worked over there, which is sort of what we’re trying to get to (here),” he said.

The French food system is based on local availability, with menus that change with the season. Perry explained that the American food system became centrally based to reduce cost. But that type of system comes with its own price – a distance-driven lack of accountability and the loss of family-owned farms. To Perry, a locally based system has a number of advantages.

“One, we can keep the farms in family hands so they don’t have to sell out,” he said. “And two, the food is safer. You know where it’s from. You know how it was handled. You know how it was raised, and how it was processed. The food is much better. It’s much fresher and you have a huge economic impact on small rural communities, which seems to be the missing puzzle piece.”

For the next year, Perry will be working on that puzzle, looking down “each one of these roads” and being aware of what’s going on in research, production, marketing and distribution. His task, as he sees it, is “not to be an expert in it, but to be aware of what’s going on and look for ways to link people together.”

Contact: 

Bob Perry, 859-257-8890, Nancy Cox, 859-257-3333