UKAg's Gregg Rentfrow instructed The Chop Shop staff when the processor first opened.
UKAg's Gregg Rentfrow instructed The Chop Shop staff when the processor first opened.

Starting this summer, University of Kentucky students from Eastern Kentucky may be more familiar with their UK Dining hamburgers than they expect. An agreement between two Kentucky processors and a large food distributor is opening up a much-needed market for Appalachian beef cattle. That burger the students enjoy might very well originate from their own family farms or neighboring farms.

This shouldn’t be unusual, when one considers that Kentucky has more cattle than any state east of the Mississippi River. Yet, it is extremely difficult to find enough beef that is finished, processed and packaged in Kentucky to supply institutional clients like UK. Most of the cattle raised in the state are sent for finishing to the Great Plains. The new agreement between The Chop Shop in Wolfe County, a Kentucky Proud and Appalachian Proud meat processing facility; Omni Custom Meats Inc. in Bowling Green, a minority-owned Kentucky Proud meat processing facility; and Sysco, one of UK Dining’s two primary suppliers of food, will result in 10,000 pounds of ground meat per week staying in the state. In the process, it also will help Aramark, which runs UK Dining, meet their contractual agreement with UK for Kentucky Proud food products. When all is said and done, UK Dining will be able to offer Kentucky Proud ground beef to their customers.

“We are delighted that our campus partnership has provided an opportunity not only to make this connection with Appalachian farmers and food producers, but also to provide another Kentucky Proud and direct farm impact menu option for the campus community,” said Leisha Vance, UK Dining sustainability manager.

Aramark’s UK contract commits the company to purchasing $1.2 million in Kentucky Proud products and $800,000 in local products in the first year. In this case, local is defined as originating in Fayette or the six surrounding counties. The contract also stipulates purchasing will increase by 5 percent for each of the first five years. By 2024, 20 percent of UK Dining’s food and beverage purchases will be Kentucky Proud and locally sourced. By 2029, that obligation will increase to 25 percent.

Though it looks fairly direct on paper, the road to acquiring locally produced beef can be a winding one. Ground beef is highly regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Sysco has more conditions on safety, process control, and refrigeration than the USDA does, not to mention insurance and certification requirements. This makes it difficult for some of the smaller processors in the state to work directly with Sysco, so this is where Omni Meats stepped in.

Omni Meats is a 32-year-old business built on processing beef, poultry and pork products for institutional customers. They have worked with Sysco in the past and are able to meet the large distributor’s requirements.

“So the motivation was passed from Aramark to Sysco to Omni to acquire sources of Kentucky beef. This is an important step in efforts to move locally produced food beyond farmers markets and on-farm retail and expand the benefits to food producers and consumers,” said Scott Smith, faculty director of The Food Connection at UK, the purpose of which is to promote a healthy, sustainable food economy. The Food Connection is housed in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment.

In Eastern Kentucky, where The Chop Shop is located, a robust food-based system could be one of the solutions to strengthening an economy weakened by the loss of tobacco and coal. Wolfe and Morgan counties’ agricultural and natural resources extension agents, Daniel Wilson and Sarah Fannin respectively, wrote the proposal that ultimately led to a $280,000 Kentucky Agricultural Development Fund grant, as well as $70,000 in other grants—money that was used for freezer facilities for The Chop Shop.

“This arrangement is great for The Chop Shop, it’s great for farmers, and it’s great for the area,” Wilson said. “Agriculture provides people with another avenue to make money.”

Wilson said the number of livestock producers in the region is growing, including the number of cattle producers, and he has heard from them time and time again that they want their product sold and consumed locally.

“Omni, Sysco, Aramark and UK are the first ones to really buy into what The Chop Shop can provide,” he said. “I’m passionate about these (Chop Shop) guys. They have a wonderful facility over here. It’s the most modern slaughter facility I’ve ever been in, and I’m just happy to see it go to them.”

The Chop Shop owner, Jonathan Whitt, is pleased that he will be able to give his region’s beef producers a new market for their product.

“This is paving the way for a new community- and state-minded business environment,” Whitt said. “This revolutionary partnership will unite all levels of the agribusiness community, starting with ground level, local farmers all the way to larger wholesalers and end-users, like the University of Kentucky.”