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The Lexington Good Foods Co-op is 40 years old this year and they threw a party. Being owners, we got an invite, and looking for good food, we went. We were not disappointed, as the food and the party were captivating and sincere. I would expect no less from this venerable institution, but I was struck by several items discussed at the annual owners meeting that were part of the celebration.
One item that came up in the question-and-answer portion had to do with the amount of local product the co-op actually deals with on a yearly basis: 10 percent. The other item, also arising from a Q&A, had to do with the co-op’s efforts in the local community. That question, addressed in a roundabout way, did not illuminate the ways in which this is truly a community co-op, and that surprised and distressed me even more than the first answer.
Are we as a co-op too modest? Have we not been a beacon in the community for the 22 years I’ve been in Lexington and the 40 years that the co-op has been around? Who else has a great dietician on staff, great food in the aisles, diversity in the café and outreach through the employees that may not be “official” but is incredibly efficient and selfless? If it wasn’t modesty that stumped the speaker, was it lack of a cohesive and centered community outreach program?
Being in the business of community outreach at Sullivan, (it being a good training ground for culinary students and good marketing of the program), I am used to being able to tick off a list of all of the events we help out with in the community. We run a tight ship, and every opportunity that we take on is re-examined upon completion to see if we can do it better next time. Remember our name is on it, and we need to own the event and the outcome.
The co-op’s value to Central Kentucky is priceless. The demands on the staff and board are high and frequent, so I can understand if at times they are reluctant to put themselves out there for every event they are asked to do. Here is my only caveat: when history comes calling, you have to answer….always…even when it hurts.
The initiative mentioned at the meeting concerned a very historic opportunity: pairing with local grassroots (literally) groups such as Seedleaf and driving the bus for food justice in this community. If it’s any consolation at all, I would love to hop on that bus. And I bet some of my Sullivan University faculty and students would do the same. I am constantly amazed at the energy of a core group of culinary students; small in number but mighty in scope! Consider it a birthday gift if you choose to join the challenge, and rest assured that community is just that, everyone involved, everyone engaged.
Let’s call our second concern “the 10 percent.” I have never run a co-op and would be the first to admit that it’s a job I would not relish. But let’s pause and consider not how low that number seems to be but how high we can push it in year. As an owner, I look forward to buying local whenever I go in and I’m always struck by the amount you do offer us. But also being a Farmer’s Market, buyer I know that what I see in the market is not always reflected in the store.
Part of the equation is price, that I get. Another part may be availability, also a no-brainer. In your retail world, another issue is marketing. It’s tough to balance the food dollars and the retail dollars every week, especially if everything else changes as well. The only way I can relate is the restaurants that I have worked in and the one I owned; the trust has got to be there to build the line from producer to seller to buyer. If that line is built well, it will eventually run itself with modifications for seasonal shifts and produce local buying patterns close to 50 percent in the best growing seasons and over the 10 percent at its lowest.
Connection with the grower is a key, a liaison is necessary, and commitment is essential to make this work. If you say you’ll buy farmer X’s tomatoes, you have to buy them, and if you don’t sell them all right away give them to Chef Alex, she is a magician with local foods. Plan your marketing around the crop rotations so you might be heavy on asparagus in the spring and have none in the fall, but what better way to teach healthy eating than to eat seasonally. And don’t think you’re competing with the Farmers Market, you’re supplementing it. The more local food that pours into the community outlets, the more choice people have to choose local; it’s a page from the corporate fast food companies – competition drives sales, concentration makes money.
All my advice, of course, comes at a time when the co-op has just finished major renovations and become entirely independent of any lending institutions. People do need a break and the ball will start to roll again very soon. I am and always will be an owner and a supporter. Part of both of those roles is my responsibility to help in any way that I can, and the offer is open. But part of the burden also lies with the co-op; the burden of being sometimes the moral compass of a community, pointing out new ways to engage and grow the next 40 years. Happy Birthday Good Foods!
And now for dinner: I had potatoes, garlic and asparagus and a wood-fired grill. Add to that fresh oregano, good olive oil and a touch of kosher salt and cracked black pepper. Quarter and blanch the potatoes and trim the asparagus.
Set a good cast iron skillet on a hot coal grill (no flames) and add in the olive oil. Without taking the oil too far, add in the potatoes first and start to brown them. The garlic goes in next, peeled and crushed, not sliced. When the potatoes are starting to soften and the garlic is browning, toss in the asparagus. Keep the mixture moving frequently now and add in the oregano. It will wilt almost immediately, and if you keep things moving in the pan nothing will scorch. Finish with the salt and pepper and a touch of lemon if you so desire. (This kind of cooking, outdoors and on the fly reminds me of a dinner I worked on not long ago at UK’s South Farm, with among others, Good Food’s chef Alex Jenkins.)
John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Chef Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been an executive chef, including at the popular Dudley’s Restaurant, and a restaurant owner.
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