Will the 'bluegrass state's' small farms rise in coal's wake?

April 9, 2014

Written By Real Food Challenge Campaign Director David Schwartz

Kentucky has long been known for its bourbon, horse racing, college basketball, fried chicken, coal and tobacco.  Now, a thriving local food system!? That's the goal, if a team of local college students has its way.

This winter at the University of Louisville, students began combing through reams of invoices from U of L's $2.7 million food budget to assess exactly how much money is being devoted to local farms – as well as fairly trade, ecologically sound and humane farms and food businesses –  and how they could be doing more. 

The U of L student join over 130 teams nation-wide participating in simultaneous research projects known as The Real Food Calculator – a student-designed tool aiming to set a new standard for food quality in institutions, using the power of student research. 

“Increasingly we're finding that businesses understand millennials' desire for transparency, authenticity and honesty in marketing—especially when it comes to food,” says, Anim Steel, Executive Director of Real Food Generation, and one of the Calculator program's original designers. “What's been missing are concrete tools and hard numbers to help institutions keep up with an evolving customer base. The Real Food Calculator fills that gap.” 

Anthropology professor Jeneen Wiche, herself a small grass-fed livestock/poultry grower and advisor to the U of L research team explains her motivation for joining the program: “The Calculator allows a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the food system that feeds the University of Louisville. Campus food is what fuels our students, but it can also help support entrepreneurial local food enterprises. The Calculator will allow us to applaud what is being done well and troubleshoot where we fall short. The students become the driving force behind reform.”

Reform of this sort has been a long time coming in Kentucky.  For generations the state's economy has relied on coal and tobacco.  However, as demand for domestic tobacco production plummeted and the coal industry was undercut by natural gas, the economy has faltered.  High poverty, prescription drug abuse and diet-related disease are the new norm in many rural districts.

In 1998, however, Kentucky's state attorney general joined the Master Settlement Agreement with the big tobacco companies. Thanks to some farsighted leadership and a lot of organized grassroots pressure, rather than simply take the check to balance its budget, the state decided to use 57 percent of the $3 billion it received to jump-start the economy through a massive shift towards alternative agriculture development.  

Now students, energized by a growing national movement, are joining the effort in numbers.  By organizing together, they're harnessing the big buying power of urban institutions to revitalize farming communities throughout the state.

“Real food goes beyond nutrition. When we talk about sustainability we are connecting environmentalism to food justice to human rights,” explains Laura Patterson, a sophomore and varsity athlete at University of Louisville. “It's about ensuring equality and fairness for a world in which we can thrive rather than simply survive.”

By using the Real Food Calculator's food analysis, students are throwing their weight behind a growing movement to define 'real food' using a comprehensive and rigorous set of 3rd party-verified standards for food that fits one of four categories: local, fair, ecologically sound and humane.  Four years of student research and pilot testing have produced the Real Food Calculator, an online tool that allows researchers to aggregate and analyze thousands of purchasing records to assess their institution’s 'real food' score. 

Nationally, since the rollout of the Real Food Calculator this year:

  • 134 universities have joined the program—including Johns Hopkins University, UC Berkeley, Indiana University, and UNC Chapel Hill
  • More than 600 student researchers have reviewed more than 84,297 unique products and $71,059,505 worth of campus food purchases to see if they meet the rigorous 'real food' standards
  • The average participating school spends $5.18 million on food each year, 15 percent of which qualifies as 'real food'
  • 22 schools who participate in the program have also signed the Real Food Campus Commitment – a pledge to increase their real food percentage to 20, 30 or 40 percent by 2020.

Change is coming in Kentucky.  Already, students at Berea College and Centre College in Eastern Kentucky, as well as a team at Northern Kentucky University have gotten involved.   Students at University of Louisville, however, are also calling on President James Ramsey to become the first institution of higher education in Kentucky to sign the Real Food Campus Commitment. The results, they say, would be “a real game-changer for Kentucky agriculture.”