Sustainability and Food at University of Kentucky

Ethical Mandate

What does sustainability mean in a food system? Why should our food system be sustainable?

Sustainability is beneficial to human systems, non-human organisms and ecosystem health. Sustainability considers both the short-term and the long-term impacts of any individual or collective human action on environmental systems, on social systems, and on economic systems. Sustainability recognizes humanity’s place in the world not as conquerors, physically detached from nature, but as citizens of the biotic community, and this understanding demands responsibility for one’s actions. Current cultural paradigms and lifestyles are unsustainable, and sustainability recognizes that there must be a shift on some larger scale to achieve a cultural level of healthy human/ecosystem unity.

As Chef Bob Perry said, “Sustainability is a journey, not a destination,” and in every step of a project, we must consider the long-term impacts of our decisions. We must be sure to maintain the future health of our economic systems, exemplified in a diverse, locally integrated economy. We must respect the health of environmental systems and keep human waste products from damaging biota. We must finally treat all human beings with justice and dignity, building healthy community through benevolence and respect between individuals.

Current food systems are unsustainable in many ways, including: the use of fossil fuel resources to plant, harvest, transport, process and package food products; reliance on pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers synthesized from fossil fuels; destructive land management strategies; and reliance on government subsidies to keep farms economically viable. No one person or company is to blame for all of this, certainly, but in an age when fossil fuels are increasingly scarce, we must consider whether it is wise to maintain agricultural systems dependant on hydrocarbon energy inputs. Alternative agricultural models have been developed in an attempt to rectify unsustainable aspects of modern agriculture, and a growing movement focused around sustainable food is becoming a political and economic force.

In order for food systems to be sustainable, we must address the three pillars: the environmental, the social, and the economic. Food must be produced and distributed in a way that does not compromise the ecological health of its place. This may be achieved through a variety of land management practices, but in order to truly be sustainable, waste products from producing food must be minimal to none. Fertilizers and pesticides which wash downstream after field application may not damage the field in which the crops are grown, but they will effect the downstream ecosystem, and we must remember that all ecosystems are connected. Waste products dispersed through water and air, while not damaging a specific locales, are still unsustainable in the long run.

Food must be accessible to all people and distributed in a socially just way. Food security is a right that must be extended to all humans, regardless of class, ethnicity, or status. Although this ideal is distant from today’s reality, we must recognize that all humans deserve consideration and food security ultimately affects everyone. Sustainable food systems that incorporate respect for the integrity of human life may also respect the integrity of non-human life.

Food must not economically benefit one person over another. This means food producers must be compensated with a fair price for their product, and food consumers must be able to afford healthy food. Food production itself must be cease to be dictated by an economic profit motive, and instead become a community project which brings food producers and consumers together in mutual beneficial harmony. Taking a non-economic approach to food production necessarily entails a reassessment of the many efficient and profit-oriented decisions that determine key policy points in the food system.

University of Kentucky has the opportunity and responsibility to educate Kentucky citizens on sustainability issues in their community, and food is integral to every community. UKY has a variety of programs dedicated to exploring and researching sustainable food systems. This study will be invaluable to future generations of Kentuckians who, simply by living in the community of UKY, will be positively influenced by sustainable projects implemented by UK community members.

History of Sustainable Food Pograms at the University of Kentucky

The University of Kentucky (UK) has implemented several programs in its efforts to create a more sustainable food system, both at the university level and within the broader community. The University’s efforts are focused in several areas, including campus dining services, educational programs, faculty research, and student organizations.

UK Dining Services is the primary source of food on campus. In 2006, they began partnering with local farms to serve Kentucky Proud products to students, faculty, and other members of the campus community. While these efforts are not widely advertised, local foods are available for purchase at several locations on campus. In 2007, UK Dining Services stopped using plastic trays in an effort to conserve energy and resources. Over the past few years, Dining Services has implemented several other changes in an effort to reduce its environmental impact, including the use of recyclable and/or compostable “disposable” items such as napkins, plates, and utensils. Scott Henry, the Executive Director of UK Dining Services, continues to make efforts to increase the program’s sustainability.

In 2009, Gaines fellow Christina Kuchle came up with a plan to start a community garden that would benefit those living on campus. In 2010, her dream became a reality with the creation of the Gaines Kupar garden in Shawneetown. In its first season, the garden contained 10 10x10 allotments; today, Shawneetown boasts 40 allotments with the possibility for additional growth.

Education & Research

Sustainable Agriculture Major
Nutrition & Food Science
Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems Working Group


UK Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)

Photo courtesy of UK CSA

Photo Courtesy of UK CSA

Photo Courtesy of UK CSA


UK Dining Services

UK Dining services prides itself on the quality food services they provide the University community. Dining Services serves over 19,000 plates of food a day to students, faculty, staff, and visitors through 26 campus dining locations. There are a variety of programs dedicated to promoting local and sustainable food choices to students. UK has committed itself to supporting regional food producers and thus contributes to regional food security for all of Kentucky.


The University of Kentucky spent 6.4 million dollars on food for students, faculty, and staff for fiscal year 2011-2012. According to Executive Director Steve Henry, the yearly food budget is a percentage of the previous year’s receipts. The budget tends to increase yearly, growing in conjunction with the University’s student body. For example, fiscal year 2012-2013, the budget has increased to 6.7 million.

Kentucky Proud Food at the University of Kentucky

Dining services began serving local foods in 2006. Then Director – began serving Kentucky Proud products with a budget of $150,000. At that time, local offerings consisted of squash, tomatoes, and some dairy products. Today, the budget is $600,00 and includes dairy, tomatoes, apples, squash, watermelon, and other produce as well as some meat products such as pork, steak, and hamburger. In an interview, Mr. Henry stated that while he would like to increase his budget for local foods it is not likely to grow further. There are several reasons for this, including price, including price, availability and scale, shipping logistics and consistency, and USDA GAP requirements.


Dining services serves 17,000 meals per day to students, faculty, and staff. Dining services must pay retail prices to local farmers, which is much higher than the wholesale prices paid to bulk industry suppliers like Gordon Food Services. As a result, Kentucky Proud items cost an average of 30 percent more than their non-local counterparts. Increasing the amount of local food offered would require the additional cost be passed to the students, who do not respond positively to price increases and have not shown a specific interest in eating local foods.

Availability and Scale

The University of Kentucky is in session from August to May, while the Kentucky growing season is from May to October. Dining services must have access to food for students during the months when local foods are not available, making serving only local foods impossible. When making purchases for dining services, Mr. Henry must also consider the scale at which he must make his purchases. For him, it is not realistic to purchase all of his foods from local suppliers whose products are not offered at the scale that he needs. Instead, he purchases items like apples and tomatoes when they are in season and available in abundance, to the extent that his budget will allow. When the season is over, non-local produce is served.

Shipping Logistics & Packaging/Consistency

Dining services contracts with Gordon Food Services for shipment and delivery of its food orders. Food is delivered directly to individual locations. Local shipments must be packaged, shipped, and delivered via different methods that require additional arrangements and cost. Additionally, food that is served at the University must meet certain packaging and consistency requirements. Because of the scale at which they are producing, each campus dining location must have food that meets standards for shelf life, size, and quality. Proper tracking must be available for all purchases in the event of food borne illness. This allows dining services to determine where a particular food item originated in order to avoid further contamination and spread of disease.

USDA GAP Requirements

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has set out a list of practice guidelines that ensure safe handling of food products at every step of the production chain. Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) ensure that food is handled safely on the farm. Good agricultural practices include enforcement of an appropriate food safety protocol and worker health and hygiene, in addition to appropriate water usage, sewer treatment, and livestock care. Farms are audited to determine whether their practices meet these requirements. Each farm that the University works with must be vetted under this program to ensure continued safety of students, faculty, and staff.

Student Response to Local Foods on Campus

Recently, Dining Services attempted a switch from processed meats to local ground beef for burgers at one of its outlets. The switch was advertised heavily in an effort to gain student attention and interest. Unfortunately, the response to the switch was negative. Students were unhappy with the new burger meat, which did not taste like the beef that they were used to. Students stopped buying burgers, an act that sent a clear signal that students were unhappy with their options. As a result, the meat was switched back to the processed beef that had been served previously.

Sources of Non-Local Food

Dining services works with Gordon Food Services (GFS) for non-local food. GFS supplies food to large, non-franchise organizations like the University of Kentucky. Food from GFS comes from various places across the country.

Sources of Local Food

Dining services has partnered with the following farms to provide local food to students:

Reed Valley Orchard: Apples, pears, and cider
Marksbury Farm Market: Meats, beef, and pork
Creation Gardents: Corn, watermelon, tomatoes, squash, and peppers
GFS/Grow Farms: Grow Farms is a Kentucky farm cooperative. Last year, GFS entered a partnership with Grow Farms that provided local produce to UK Dining Services. Dining Services also purchases Kentucky Proud ground beef from Grow Farms.
Clem’s Refrigerated Foods: Kentucky Proud ground beef
Southernbelle Dairy: All dairy products at all dining locations on campus.

Sustainability efforts

The following is the sustainability statement put forth by UK Dining Services:

Dining Services recognizes the importance of reducing its impact on the environment and has implemented initiatives in support of environmental improvement and sustainable development. UK Dining has a simple set of operational standards in the form of a Sustainability commitment, which takes care to minimize impact whilst ensuring the guest experience is not compromised. Our efforts are evolving and it’s our intention to increase our efforts each year so that we do our part to ensure a sustainable future. The commitment has been developed in conjunction with feedback from student groups, faculty, and staff and has been easy to implement as it makes sense both fiscally and ecologically.

The Key standards include:

  • Forming sustainable partnerships with local producers including produce, dairy, and meat.
  • Establishing waste minimization measures – including going trayless, recycling plastics, aluminum, and card board, reducing disposables where possible, and utilizing recycled napkins and paper towels.
  • Actively seeking energy conservation – including conversion to energy efficient equipment, the use of LED lighting, compact fluorescent lighting, and low flow valves on dish machines. When purchasing equipment, we conduct a life cycle cost analysis of equipment before it is purchased (how much energy, water, and chemicals will a particular piece of equipment use in its lifetime?) to determine a true cost of ownership.

Executive Director Henry points out that Dining Services works to keep faculty, students and staff on campus, thus contributing to the sustainability of the University itself. To Mr. Henry, to be sustainable makes sense, not only ecologically, but also economically. Specific efforts to become more sustainable include going trayless in 2007. Rather than performing a study to determine how students would respond, Mr. Perry made the decision to switch and made the change in the summer of 2007. There was no outcry from students in response to the change. In addition to going trayless, Dining Services has made the following changes in an effort to reduce its environmental impact:

  • All paper towels, plates, and disposable utensils are either compostable or recyclable.
  • All pre-consumer (raw) produce waste is composted on the University’s organic farm.
  • Blazer Hall is outfitted with china rather than disposable plates. A low-flow dishwasher is used to ensure minimum resource use. A similar purchase is in the works for the Commons.
  • LED lights are used to replace worn out bulbs.
  • Life-cycle cost analyses are done on all potential equipment purchases.

Additional Concerns

According to Mr. Henry, it can be difficult to get the word out to students regarding the benefits of local food. These benefits include better flavor and nutritional value, as well as a smaller environmental impact and greater sense of community. Benefits like these are often lost on students who are used to tasting processed food. While Mr. Henry would like to see more educational efforts made to teach students about healthy food choices, he does not know of any.

In an effort to offer healthier food to students, Dining Services have switched from offering premade foods to cooking all food from scratch. Additionally, special meals are offered that highlight local foods. The problem, according to Henry, is that students get into a pattern, eating things they are used to in places that are conveniently located near classes or dorms. Dining Services strives to offer quality food in a fun environment as well as to educate students about making healthy food choices. The Dining Services website offers information on making healthy food choices as well as cooking tips and information on the program’s sustainability efforts. However, these efforts are not advertised in a broad way.

Chef Bob Perry on the importance of sustainable food systems.

Planning Administration & Engagement

University of Kentucky Farmer's MarCat

History and creation of the MarCat
MarCat has a rather short history but is becoming a long standing tradition with the SAB board. A big part of the committee's programing is finding out what students want which is primarily found out through the All Student Survey which all committee members put questions in. The Engaging Issues kept getting answers back about sustainability was something that was on their minds. Engaging Issues deal with issues that are controversial, taboo, and things that deal with broadening the perspectives of the students so involving sustainability on campus in a program also fit with the boards core values. Sarah Jones took over this project when the previous Engaging Issues Director left and organized the MarCat we have today.
The MarCat is an on campus version of the Lexington Farmers Market which is usually held downtown. They contacted various Kentucky Proud farmers to sell them to the students. Also certain organizations were given the opportunity to promote the education of the students.

Plans for Expansion

SAB only has educational events by its definition. This means the MarCat can only be held once a semester but they intend on keeping it a semesterly series. There are plans to move it out of the Buell Armory to the Student Center Patio so that it is more accessible to the students. Also since they were in contact with so many farmers they will make sure that there are at least 7 or 8 vendors. They also hope to involve more student organizations so that educationally it is just as valuable.

Sustainability on campus and its implication
All of dining services buys from Kentucky proud vendors and so this hopes to promote the same Kentucky Proud vendors in the area. SAB has a very large sphere of influence and must meet the needs of the students and the economy of the community.

Recommended Organizations

Student Dietetic Association. SAG organization and classes that are offered through the program even to non-agriculture majors. Center for Community Outreach

Video of the interview with Sarah Jones

Health & Wellness Program

UK Health & Wellness Program is an integral part of the nutrition and health systems of the community of UK staff and faculty members. The UK H&W program offers education services and fitness programs designed to promote nutritious food and lifestyle decisions among faculty and staff. According to an interview with H&W manager Jody Ensman, “about 27% of the population is engaged in the program, about 6200 employees. They are utilizing the resources, and the program is showing a positive return on investment. There are health benefits for individuals, and also a financial benefit to the institution.” Furthermore, the H&W program is currently involved in planning efforts to bring a regular farmer’s market to campus, for “faculty, staff, and students” to access healthy whole food options while simultaneously supporting local farmers.
The Health and Wellness Program, while not officially a sustainability initiative, is however tied to sustainability in a number of ways, namely that education about healthy lifestyles and food choices begets healthy community members. Healthy community members are the foundation of a healthy community, but there are also other benefits from the program. Program participants, by changing their habits, may avoid unnecessary healthcare costs in the future, which is a financial benefit both to them as individuals and to UK. Finally, education about the farmers markets and the nutrition of whole food diets promotes minimal packaging and direct consumption of local foods, which reduces the environmental impact of the consumer’s food choices. While not a specific sustainability program, the H&W program contributes by educating the UK community about sustainable and healthy food opportunities available to them.

Campus Gardens: Shawneetown Gardens


Photo courtesy of UK Office of Sustainability

The Shawneetown Gardens is a community garden that Christina Kuchle created as part of her Gaines fellowship in 2007. The garden began with 20 10x10 allotments and has expanded to 40 spots. There is currently a waiting list of 146 people waiting for spots. Seeds, transplants, and gardening help are provided. An intern manages the garden and coordinates one-on-one classes with residents who have specific questions. Additional information can be found on the Community Gardens page.

Get Involved!



Student Organizations:

Slow Foods UKY
Student Dietetic Association
Center for Community Outreach

University of Kentucky Office of Sustainability

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