Local Food Systems Summit held at Kroger Field

Kendall Staton

The Food Connection helped host the fourth annual Kentucky Local Food Systems Summit on March 23 at UK’s Kroger Field.

People traveled from all over Kentucky to attend different breakout sessions, learning from their peers about everything from student perspectives on the food system to marketing strategies to expand local food consumption.

UK’s Food Connection exists to serve all members of the food supply chain through creative strategies on and off campus. The organization places an emphasis on food systems research and aims to foster community partnerships around Lexington.

Krista Jacobsen, faculty director of the Food Connection, said the main purpose of the summit was to facilitate discussion between scholars in local food systems studies so they can learn from each other and grow their communities. She wanted the summit to be a place for networking and sharing best practices within food systems.

“The Kentucky Local Food Systems Summit is really geared towards people who are doing work in food systems to build local food systems in various ways,” she said.

The summit opened with Jacobsen announcing the current Lexington director of local food and agriculture development, Ashton Potter Wright, as the incoming director of the Food Connection. She will assume her new position by the end of the academic year.

Potter Wright said that she has high hopes for her time with the Food Connection.

“I’m really excited to leverage the ability of teaching environmental issues and research to continue to build local food systems in a sustainable and equitable way,” she said.

Potter Wright took the stage to introduce this year’s keynote speaker, Kim Niewolny, a professor at Virginia Tech University. Niewolny also works as the director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Food Systems and Community Transformation.

“This is the fourth annual summit, and work has passed on a long history of people to us. That effort is to transform our local and regional based community food systems,” Niewolny said. “Just looking at today’s agenda, it is hard not to be inspired.”

In her keynote address, Niewolny highlighted the need to approach the agriculture industry with a systems approach. She said to fully understand food systems, society has to understand how systematic issues such as racism affect the industry. She encouraged an intersectional approach to solving these issues.

Unjust systems were a popular topic of discussion at the summit, with six of the 16 breakout sessions covering how race issues affect the food industry.

Kenyetta Johnson, representative for the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest located in Louisville, Kentucky, spoke on her role as an environmental educator and how it is difficult to bring diverse populations to the green space that Bernheim is able to provide. She aims to be able to bring green spaces back to the people who helped create them in the first place.

“There’s a list of places where people of color built these spaces and then were hexed out of coming to them,” Johnson said. “It took 40 years to start seeing some of those families start coming back out to those spaces.”

Another summit participant, Tania Whitfield, asked Niewolny to expand upon processes for getting individuals involved in local food systems. Whitfield called for recognition that while individuals have power in food systems, it is often a struggle for them to feel heard.

“For me, I always start with relationship building,” Niewolny said in response. “I work with different types of communities, different types of organizations, to build dialogs. Storytelling has been one of the most powerful ways in which we can organize at the community level.”

After the keynote address, participants split into breakout rooms to hear from experts in different areas of local food system operations. Between breakout room sessions, participants were provided lunch. Everything from the milk to the grits was locally sourced.

With such a large group of people, motivations for attending the event varied greatly. Sarah Carr is a representative of Journi’s Hope, a volunteer organization that aims to help distribute food to immigrants and refugees in America. Carr said regardless of attendees’ reasons, she was glad they were there.

“I do this work because I care. We may have volunteers who come for credit, but I do it because I care,” she said.

While some participants came all the way from Bowling Green to attend the summit, UK faculty and staff were also participants in the event.

Tim Woods, a UK agriculture economics professor, said he was honored to attend the event and hear from his peers about their research and experiences. He called the summit an “amazing network of folks” and said he appreciated that many of them had done work for local food systems in central Kentucky.

After a long day of learning, collaborating and networking, everyone began their journeys home. This was a stark contrast to last year’s event, which was held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Food Connection’s program director, Tanya Whitehouse, said she felt that everyone was excited to be back in person and able to see each other face to face. While the work never stopped, she felt more connected this year than last.

“This has been extremely heartening to see so many people come together to promote local foods,” Whitehouse said. “I think people are grateful to get to do this work in person again.”