Campus News

Public-Private Partnership Helps to Shore Up Local Farms During These Uncertain Times

Radishes
Photo by: Sarah Caton.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (March 27, 2020) — When the University of Kentucky sent its students home to continue their classes online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of that decision rippled out beyond campus to the local farmers who supply UK Dining Services with food. Suddenly, producers lost a valuable market for their products.

Aramark Corporation, UK’s partner in dining services, The Food Connection at the University of Kentucky and Bluegrass Farm to Table quickly mobilized to try to find a new outlet for local farmers.

“Just because the dining halls closed doesn’t mean our care and concern for our farmers ended,” said Carolyn Gahn of Aramark.

The obvious solution in normal times would have been to bring more restaurants into the loop for local food. Restaurants, however, are closed or are limiting menu items to pick-up or delivery, so that solution wasn’t available. Times called for outside-the-box thinking, so the three partners turned to Alice Chalmers, who directs Local Food Connection, a division of Creation Gardens, a food service company that acts as the middle link in the farm to university chain.

The result is a new direct-to-consumer service offered by Creation Gardens that will provide the public with access to the usual local produce and proteins that would normally appear in campus dining rooms, as well as other locally raised foods and some pantry staples such as butter, oil and vinegar. Participating farms are Elmwood Stock Farm, Marksbury Farm, Mount Pleasant Farm, Mulberry Ridge Farm, Prayer Mountain Farm and Salad Days Farm. 

“The work of building local food systems has always been rooted in strong relationships and collaboration. This new initiative is just another example of how we as UK, and we as Kentuckians, come together to support each other and our local farmers,” said Lilian Brislen, executive director of The Food Connection, which is housed in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment.

Customers can place their order online through a Creation Gardens web-based platform by 10 p.m. Tuesdays and pick up their order at one of two locations in Lexington on Thursdays. The UK Department of Horticulture’s Community Supported Agriculture program is supporting the initiative by co-hosting a pick-up location alongside their usual Thursday farm stand at the Horticultural Research Farm on Man O’ War Boulevard. Great Bagel and Bakery at 396 Woodland Ave. and Smithtown Seafood at West Sixth, located at 501 W. Sixth St., also will serve as pick-up locations.

“Our existing network of local food systems partners allowed us to quickly mobilize to develop creative solutions,” said Ashton Potter Wright, Lexington’s director of Local Food and Agricultural Development, who manages the Bluegrass Farm to Table Program. “Our local farmers are resilient, and we will continue to support them in whatever way we can to ensure their continued viability during this public health emergency.”

Andrew Barnes, owner of Prayer Mountain Mushrooms in Upton, is excited about the new program. He normally sells his gourmet mushrooms to various universities, including UK, as well as fine-dining restaurants from Dayton, Ohio, to Nashville, Tennessee.

“I loved the idea of using the institutions we already have to get food out to people directly,” Barnes said. “When the restaurants all closed, our focus shifted to how do we get food to residential customers and how do we get people cooking mushrooms at home. Trying to figure that out has been our main concern.”

Though groceries are still open — Barnes continues to sell his mushrooms through the Logan Street Market in Louisville and the Dorothy Lane Market in Dayton and his online store — the pandemic has made him rethink his options.

“We look at every disruption as an opportunity to try something new,” he said.

The new food distribution program is open to the public, not just university employees and students. As many people look for ways to adjust their dining patterns at home, many people are suddenly finding themselves cooking more and looking to local farmers for fresh food.

“This program will help provide an additional way for our community to access fresh, nutritious food that has been raised by Kentucky farmers just for us,” Brislen said.

Local farms have always been an important part of the local economy, as well as a vital cog in the system to build healthy, sustainable communities.

“This initiative is the perfect example of the public-private partnerships we’ve worked to build around our local food economy,” Gahn said. 

To order or for more details on times and other pick-up locations as they are added, visit https://localfoodconnection.localfoodmarketplace.com.

The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion three years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" two years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers."  We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for four straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.