Meet Our First Local Food Coordinator

by Kate Savage ~

After a very short growing season, Ashton Potter Wright, Lexington’s first Local Food Coordinator has begun to harvest significant results from her efforts to connect the producers and the purveyors of locally grown food, and found innovative ways to narrow the distance between farm and table.

Kate Savage:  The pilot position of Local Food Coordinator has existed for a little less than a year. How did you first hear about it?

Ashton Potter Wright:  The program already existed in Louisville. I first heard about the possible creation of this position when I was working on my doctorate in public health and health behavior here at UK and also working with the Tweens Nutrition and Fitness Coalition.

KS:  Part of your job now is to work with the public schools. How have you found their participation in terms of buying local?

APW:  Here in Lexington, there’s lots of local interest, but one of the biggest challenges is infrastructure. There are roughly 56 public schools in our system and all of them have kitchens. There’s no centralized warehouse and no centralized commissary to aggregate and prepare food. So, for example, if I’m a local farmer and I want to sell produce or meat to the schools, I’ve got to deliver to 56 different schools. And for a small farmer, that’s not practical or realistic.

KS:  Is that also the case in Jefferson County?

APW:  No. The Louisville Jefferson County public school system has a central commissary. Every single school meal is prepared in one location and from scratch. Therefore, they’re better positioned to buy from local producers because they can buy in large volumes. They can store it. They can freeze it. They can prepare it, and use it later. They have that mechanism, and the infrastructure is in place to distribute to schools. We don’t have that here in Fayette County. They’re a unique district and the only one in this state. We’re envious of them!

KS:  Is Jefferson County’s model one you hope to replicate in Fayette?

APW:  I would be highly supportive and help work out any logistics. But the district and the government are separate and they would have to, a) decide they want to establish a centralized system, b) find the resources to do it, and then c) find the location to do it.

Another issue with schools is they are very constrained by the amount of money they can spend on each individual lunch. Local food while not always more expensive, can be, and for a school food service watching every single penny, it can be really challenging. Schools are not going to radicalize their menus and go completely local, but hopefully they will find some seasonal things that are cost effective.

KS:  What about restaurants and suggesting ways in which they can be more supportive of local food growers?

APW:  A lot of the chefs who care about local are already invested in it and doing a really great job at it. Ouita Michel, for example. She lives it. She’s sourcing as much as she can from Kentucky producers. So I think other chefs look to her. But here’s the really critical piece: In order for more restaurateurs to embrace local food, consumers have to demand it and be willing to pay for it. Otherwise if chefs don’t have a personal passion for it, they won’t really have an incentive to offer it.

KS:  So you see yourself as the middle person?

APW:  Right. My approach has been two-fold. Some producers have heard about my position organically. They’ve heard about it through cooperative extension or another venue and have reached out and invited me to their farms where I’ve been able to learn about their operation and can then better assess the kinds of markets in which they’re currently selling and which ones they’d like to be selling to. I can help them navigate and present some options. We can work proactively to plan their growing season based on anticipated demand. Cooperative extension has been really critical. They have a presence in all the counties and a really good handle on the food production happening in their counties.

KS:  Talk about some of the obstacles, for example price point.

APW:  Right. And the paperwork. And food safety guidelines. There’s a litany of challenges. Not every producer is going to fit every market. I try to temper producers’ expectations by suggesting that there’s a range of potential market options, find out which of these will be a good lifestyle fit in terms of how much they are willing to deliver and then whether they are willing to deliver some value-added processing on their farm.

KS:  Mayor Gray said that the goal of your position was “to grow the local agricultural economy while improving the health of local citizens by providing better access to healthy locally grown foods.” I know you’ve only been in this job for 10 months, but how do you think you’ve managed to straddle this challenge?

APW:  It’s quite a tall order and it’s going to take longer than a year to accomplish, but I think the work I’ve already been able to do with help from my advisory committee has demonstrated we are planting the seeds for success. Mayor Gray’s statement embodies two different themes. One is agriculture production – how to grow the local food economy, and the other is access in consumer knowledge and education.

Those are full-time jobs in and of themselves. So I’ve capitalized on interested expertise with my advisory committee and separated them into two working groups. One focused on infrastructure and capacity building and the other focused on consumer outreach and education.

KS:  Do you have specific ways of tackling these two aspects of your job?

APW:  With respect to the consumer outreach and education piece, we’re doing a lot of work with the schools. We’re slowly making in-roads with local food procurement. We wrote and have just been awarded a $47,250 USDA Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program grant that will help with the access and affordability issue for local food.

KS:  Can you explain this grant?

APW:  Sure.  There are three tiers of funding for the USDA Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) program: FINI pilot projects, FINI projects, and FINI large scale projects. We applied for pilot program funding. USDA is interested in scaling up and replicating a Double Dollars/Double Up Food Bucks program. The idea for such a program started in Michigan and has been replicated throughout the country. The basic idea is to increase, and in some cases double, the purchasing power for SNAP users relative to the purchase of produce. Bluegrass Farm to Table, in partnership with Blue Grass Community Foundation, submitted a FINI pilot project application, and was funded. We will pilot the Bluegrass Double Dollars program at the five Lexington Farmers’ Market locations (Cheapside Park, Southland Drive, S.Broadway & Maxwell, and Alumni & University), Good Foods Co-Op, and the Lexington Market East End, which is a corner store in the East End, an area of town that is commonly referred to as a food desert, from June to November. This program will allow SNAP users who use their benefits for approved SNAP purchases at these locations to receive a voucher for up to $10 to be used explicitly for the purchase of local produce.

KS:  Where is the most work needed?

APW:  I would say infrastructure. We have a lot of small to medium-sized producers who don’t have the infrastructure in place to aggregate products, to process products, and to distribute products efficiently. Louisville has embarked on this challenge with their Food Hub. What they are now calling a Food Port is being developed in the West End of Louisville. We’ll be watching that project closely to monitor its success. On the consumer side, I think building awareness around the importance of local food, the economic benefits, health benefits, environmental benefits, and the more people are aware of these, the more likely they’ll be willing to demand local products in their schools, their restaurants, and the places that they shop.           

KS:  Is there an accomplishment that you’ve achieved in the last ten months that you’re particularly proud of?

APW:  I think submitting and receiving my first federal grant application, in partnership with Blue Grass Community Foundation, represents a tremendous accomplishment. My partners and I poured hundreds of hours of time into this application and I’m very proud to say that we were funded because I think the Bluegrass Double Dollars Pilot could have a tremendous impact on our community. Another accomplishment in the way of securing funding for local food work is the grant our partners at NoLi CDC (North Limestone Community Development Corporation) recently received from the Knight Foundation. The funding will be used to transform the old LexTran warehouse on the corner of North Limestone and Loudon Avenue into a multi-tenant public market and food hub. Bluegrass Farm to Table is thrilled to be a part of this project as it has the potential to truly transform not only the North Limestone neighborhood but also the local food economy in the region.

KS:  This is a year-long “pilot” program.  Are you fairly confident that your position will be confirmed and there will be future funding in the Mayor’s budget?

APW:  Well, I’m certainly hopeful that people will see the value in continuing to fund this work because I feel I’ve accomplished quite a bit in 10 months, but my work is not done. Making significant changes to our local food system is going to take time. To help sustain my position, I’ve approached Fayette County and the six contiguous counties. And at the end of January I submitted an application to the State Agricultural Development Board to ask them for funds to help sustain my position.  We received a favorable response so now we’ll wait on council to approve the city’s contribution to my position in June. So yes, I’m hopeful.  There seems to be a fair bit of support both internally at the city and externally within the broader community.  I am hoping we can capitalize on the momentum that has been generated and make this a permanent position.