Officials and stakeholders discuss ways to improve state's ability to buy local foods

09/13/2017 05:04 PM

FRANKFORT – State officials and producers offered their suggestions to improve the growing number of entities that look to local farms for food during a Wednesday meeting of the Interim Joint Committee on Agriculture.

Officials from the University of Kentucky, Kentucky Department of Parks and Kentucky Venues testified on the benefits they’ve witnessed in purchasing in-state products and the struggles they still face in getting local foods on their menus.

UK, for instance, buys foods from local farmers through their food services contract with Aramark.

As Lilian Brislen, executive director of UK’s Food Connection, explained, the school has revamped what it looks for in local foods in hopes of bolstering Kentucky’s agricultural economy. The university initially considered local foods as anything produced in Fayette or contiguous counties, she said.

“Local food purchases were dominated by Coca-Cola bottling plant purchases and didn’t feel consistent on the part of our stakeholders with what local food meant to them, so by moving to farm impact and on our Kentucky homegrown entrepreneurs by defining local, we can direct our dining dollars to support those farmers and entrepreneurs,” Brislen said, noting that the school’s policy now excludes food products that are simply packaged, bottled or distributed in-state.

For state parks, Tom Brown, the agency’s food service director, says cost factors come into consideration from both sides. Farmers can sometimes charge more for their crops and products at nearby farmers’ markets than by selling to parks, and Brown says local foods cost more than their mass-produced counterparts.

“We do see a closing of that gap though,” he said. “One of the successes we are having is working with Clem’s Foods on a Kentucky beef product, ground-beef product and hamburger patty. We’re currently using a 75 percent Kentucky-beef product. That is soon going to be going to 100 percent.”

Brown says convenience and payment are other factors affecting how much local food parks can obtain from farmers.

David Neville, a Shelbyville farmer, suggested reducing the influence trade incentives in contracts, strengthening enforcement of legislation on the subject of state agencies partnering with local producers and evaluating the “real farm impact” of various partnerships throughout the state.

He also recommended better engagement between agencies and the agricultural community.

“They’re moving a little bit,” Neville said, alluding to institutions like UK, the state fair and state parks. “… We need to kind of light a fire, as they say back home, get them really stirred up so it benefits the Kentucky economy, Kentucky farms, healthier citizens, healthier employees. I think we can be a national leader in the local foods economy if we really get behind this stuff and quit just talking about it and start doing it.”

Sen. Paul Hornback, a Shelbyville Republican who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, told Pure Politics after Wednesday’s meeting that he’s heard frustration from farmers as they work to market and promote their stock. He said that could provide a natural partnership with universities, who could help farmers with marketing strategies.

Still, Hornback says he’s happy with the progress he’s seen in recent years as more state agencies look to Kentucky farmers to fill out their pantries.

“I think we’ve had a tremendous amount of growth, and it’s a steady growth,” he said. “I think that in the future what we need is more infrastructure in place, whether it be cooling facilities, processing facilities for livestock, some of those things, we have a more consistent supply so we can assure those who are going to be the end user they have that consistent supply.”


Subscribe to email updates.

Subscribe and get the latest political intelligence delivered to your inbox.