Student leads local food effort

On her first day as an intern in Frankfort, Brittany Dowell was asked to come up with a few good legislation ideas as a learning exercise. She came back to Rep. Dwight Butler the next day with the beginning of a bill that’s on its way to becoming law.

“I’m so excited,” said Dowell, a political science junior. “It’s kind of my baby.”

House Bill 484 would require UK and other public postsecondary institutions to buy Kentucky-grown agricultural products if they are the same price and same quality as those from outside the state.

Today, the bill is scheduled to go before a committee of the state House of Representatives. If the bill passes it could be go to the House floor for a first reading as early as this afternoon; the House votes on a bill during after its third reading.

Dowell’s idea stemmed from her experience with a farmers market at Bellarmine University in Louisville. She preferred the taste of local food and sense of community, and she said she wanted to see the same thing at UK.

“Originally it was about having locally grown food on campus for my own benefit,” Dowell said. “After some research, I found the greatest benefit would be to local farmers because it will expand the market so much.”

One group that will benefit from locally grown food purchases is farmers who have been trying to find other crops to replace tobacco, which has become increasingly hard to sell in the last decade, said John Sharpe, a farmer who used to grow tobacco.

“There’s less demand for tobacco, there’s less farming tobacco,” Sharpe said. “So everybody’s looking to diversify.”

Sharpe, one of the owners of Grasshopper Food Distribution, will be testifying to the committee today on behalf of House Bill 484. He said the bill would be the next step in promoting Kentucky-grown food.

“This a pyramid we’re trying to build on, and we don’t want the university to escape that — I don’t think anybody would,” he said.

Right now, UK buys some food from Creation Gardens, a Louisville-based company that specializes in local food distribution, said UK Dining spokesman Roger Sidney. If House Bill 484 passes, UK’s policy wouldn’t change too much, he said.

“Our philosophy is if we can get it at the same place and it’s grown locally, we’ll do it,” Sidney said.

The Community Farm Alliance and other groups have worked with Dowell and Butler, the Republican representative from Harned, to develop the bill. Dowell’s original idea was a farmers market on campus that students could go to on the weekends.

But students often buy food through the university’s meal plan and Lexington already has several farmers markets, said Kaycie Len Carter of the Community Farm Alliance. Instead, Carter recommended that the bill require UK and other state-funded schools to buy local produce.

“You provide better access for students because it’s already prepared,” Carter said. “They’ve got money on their meal cards.”

Dowell said trying to raise support for the bill from legislators has been a different experience than what she expected.

“I came in with knowledge, but it’s more about talking to people,” she said.

More than a month has passed since Dowell proposed the initial idea. She said she is confident that House Bill 484 will pass, but the gradual process has kept her from getting anxious.

“I guess because there are so many steps involved, I’m just now starting to get nervous, bringing it before the committee,” Dowell said.

Dowell has been working hard to meet committee members and other legislators to get the bill passed, Butler said.

“It’s been her brainchild, and she’s been on the ground floor,” he said. “It wouldn’t be in existence if it weren’t for her.”

Dowell said that her courses gave her a somewhat negative attitude toward politics, but interning has given her “a lot more confidence and hope in the system.”

“I love it,” she said. “I’ve definitely caught the bug.”