“Local” vs “direct farm impact”

farm photo
To the consternation of many, the University of Kentucky will be releasing imminently a request for proposals for dining services. Citizen, student and faculty groups have organized against replacing the self-operated dining services with one of the big food service contracting companies; even the local newspaper came out against the idea. Opponents cite a litany of issues, including loss of local food and the loss of educational partnerships.

Nearly all Kentucky’s large dining facilities contract for outside help. U of K was one of the last holdouts (Murray is still self-operated). These contract food service companies bring with them a large wad of capital that they can spend upgrading facilities. They can promise UK new dining halls, a great asset for UK, which plans to spend $50 million for facilities to provide new student housing.

Many good arguments have been made for keeping in-house dining services, and university trustees may, in the end, prefer the status quo.

Whatever food service is chosen for dining provisions at the university, it is essential that the citizens, students, faculty and editorial writers be specific about what they want. In the case of sustainable food purchases, the use of the term “local” is not nearly specific enough, and the current dining service has used vagaries in the language to imply that they are making a huge impact on Kentucky agriculture when, in fact, their efforts are commendable, but underwhelming.

The AASHE STARS technical manual is a little more specific. AASHE gives credit to universities when they buy food that is “grown and processed within 250 miles of the institution.”

The distinction “grown and processed” is critical. At Louisville Farm to Table, we use the phrase “direct farm impact” when describing the sort of food purchases that should count toward sustainability. The term “local,” as it is often used now, means bread from a local bakery, or milk from a dairy that is located in the state but imports the majority of its product from California and elsewhere.

Direct farm impact means that the purchase of the food in some way impacts the local farmer (whatever local means to you). It does not necessarily mean that the food is purchased directly from the farmer. Weisenberger Mill sells cornmeal and flour that has direct farm impact, because the mill buys buy corn and (soft) wheat directly from Kentucky farmers. Marksbury Farm sells beef and chicken that has direct farm impact, because they buy animals from Kentucky farmers.

The more I study the buying habits of institutions and their sustainability claims, the more I see that many “local” claims have no bearing on the lives of farmers and contribute nothing to the agriculture sector. At the University of Kentucky, which in the past has boasted $800,000 in “local” purchases and promises $1.2 million this year, the self-operated food service claims coffee, a Kentucky-made soft drink, seafood and doughnuts among the “local” purchases they made. In addition, they claim “local” meat purchased from “Kentucky Proud” distributors, though none of that meat is required to come from Kentucky farmers. If the Kentucky Proud retailer cuts imported primals into smaller pieces, the meat is considered to have been “processed” in Kentucky, and therefore qualifies as Kentucky Proud.

Hence the AASHE STARS rule that the product be “grown and processed” within 250 miles is good and reasonable. Products whose purchase results in money for farmers — a product with “direct farm impact” for Kentucky — makes it clear to all parties what counts as local.

Concerned citizens should make sure that the written contract stipulates “direct farm impact,” or “grown and processed” and not settle for the term “local.” “Local” means a local business. Locally roasted coffee beans might come from a local business but have no direct farm impact.

In addition, new dining service contracts might need new “local purchase” quotas. Currently, coffee and doughnuts count in local purchases, so 20% local is an easy target. But if the language is tightened to “grown and processed” or “direct farm impact,” expectations might need to be modified.

Further, all concerned with a more sustainable food supply should be aware that dining service contract language usually separates the dining hall food from the franchise outlet food. If there’s a Chick-fil-a or a Papa John’s on campus, food purchased by the dining service for those outlets is usually not included in the total when calculating “percent of local.”

More locally-grown food becomes available every day, and the old excuses of why someone “can’t” buy home-grown foods are beginning to drop away. It is perfectly reasonable for the University of Kentucky’s board of trustees to ask any food service — in-house or contracted — to support the agricultural community that surrounds it.

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