August 16, 2006 | By: Carol Lea Spence
LEXINGTON, KY.

As students stream onto the University of Kentucky campus for the start of fall semester, they’ll soon discover that some of them traveled farther than the food they’ll eat. In an age when much of the food on grocery shelves travels an average of 1500 miles from producer to retailer, UK is making a concerted effort to narrow that distance. Starting in August, a pilot program at the university will offer fresh, locally grown produce in all campus restaurants. 

“It’s (local produce) something our customers want. It’s something we want to provide,” said Roger Sidney, assistant director of UK Dining Services.

Sidney approached UK horticulture assistant professor Mark Williams six months ago about providing campus restaurants with produce grown on UK farms. Williams was hesitant to do that because “it’s taking money away from local farmers.” Instead, he formed a committee with Sidney and the College of Agriculture’s Tim Woods, Jim Mansfield, Lee Meyer, Mark Keating and Herb Strobel. The team devised a three-month pilot program that will test the feasibility of using locally produced products in all 20 dining areas on campus.

The program is in line with House Bill 669, which the Kentucky legislature passed during the 2006 session of the General Assembly. The bill requires that state agencies buy Kentucky-grown agricultural products, dependent upon their availability, quality and pricing.

Though it is not clear yet how this affects state universities, UK is investigating the potential behind having local food options available. 

“We want to tie into all that and make UK one of the leaders in supporting local agriculture,” Williams said. “Hopefully, with the buying power that they have they can create an excellent marketing option for some of our local growers, and perhaps even influence others interested in developing similar programs elsewhere in our state.”

To Williams, the leader behind the creation of the College of Agriculture’s new four-year degree program in sustainable agriculture, one of the hallmarks of sustainable agriculture is the support of local food economies. That’s what UK is trying to build with this pilot program, he said.

Mansfield, senior Extension associate in the Department of Agricultural Economics, sees widespread benefits in opening markets such as this.

“We keep the dollars at the local economy, we support keeping green space open with viable farm enterprises and people get fresh produce,” he said. 

Finding local markets is not as easy as it might sound, however. Farmers who are new to the produce field and who are accustomed to the fairly stable tobacco, corn or beef markets may be unsure of the outlets available to them.

“If a farmer wants to try produce for the first time, there’s no place that they can go to have a ready market. They have to find the market. They have to find the customer willing to buy and grow what the customer wants them to grow,” Mansfield said. 

But having a market even before fields are sown can change the whole landscape of vegetable or fruit farming, Williams said. A viable market will also encourage farmers to see the economic feasibility in extending the growing season by investing in tools such as unheated greenhouses or high tunnels, all the while increasing the potential for a stronger bottom line.

“Having a market, having a place to sell produce, that’s a pretty unique thing to start with,” he said. “So if there’s a place for people to sell this food, it can drive not only research, but it can hopefully show farmers that there’s a need and a market for extending their season.”

UK Dining Services has initially linked with Elmwood Stock Farm in Scott County and Reed Valley Orchard in Harrison County for the trial period. Mansfield said they are hoping to get other farmers involved as they work through some of the logistics issues in the pilot project.

Elmwood’s Ann Bell Stone made the first delivery of cantaloupe, squash, zucchini, cucumbers and tomatoes bright and early on an August morning. She thinks Elmwood was a good fit for the trial because her family had experience in packaging and boxing quantities of product, as well as delivering to area restaurants and local institutions over the past 15 years.

The tomatoes filling the bed of her truck spoke volumes about the advantages to offering locally grown produce in UK’s dining halls.

“It’s definitely a fresher product,” she said. “It’s much nicer to have a tomato that’s picked at the peak of ripeness and the peak of flavor and all the nutritional benefits that go with having a ripe fruit versus a well traveled fruit.”

“I think it’s important in a couple of ways,” said Jeff DeMoss, executive director of UK Dining Services. “We know where the produce is coming from. We can go to that farm. We can see what’s going on.” 

He added that it’s also about “giving it back.” 

“You know, 60 percent of our university is Kentucky born and I think that’s important, too,” he said. “Because some of these young people who work for us, some of these young people who are in classes, their moms and dads are farmers.”

“My hope is that if this thing takes off it can be a model that is used by lots of other state agencies or schools,” Williams said. “When one of the flagship research and academic institutions in the state sets the standard, if that happens, if we can really develop something here, I think that can have a lot of impact. If we can develop local food economies, this can increase our food security, and it puts the money back in the hands of the people in this state, not from California or … other parts of the world.”

There’s even a simpler idea at work here, as well, according to Dining Services’ Sidney.
“We want to be part of the community and give back to the community. This is something that’s a no-brainer for us,” he said.

Contact: 

Mark Williams, 859-257-2638, Jim Mansfield, 859-257-7272, ext. 223, Jeff DeMoss, 859-257-6156, Roger Sidney, 859-257-6171