Numbers, Narratives, and Nuance

I had the pleasure this past month of attending a duet of seminar talks by Dr. Paul Vincelli and Dr. Michael Goodin, each of them working through the challenges and opportunities endemic to communicating with the public about the technology of genetic engineering. I was coming from a different meeting across campus, and so my late-arriving behind had to settle for a patch of carpet near the door because every seat was full. Over the course of their talks, Dr. Vincelli and Dr. Goodin shared both evidence-based arguments and personal anecdotes that reflected both their professional opinions as scientists and their subjective views as people who are engaged with farming and eating communities.

First Friday Greens

As with any good seminar, a number of folks hung around afterward to talk. Half sitting on the back of an auditorium chair, debating the relative merits of labeling policy, I was struck by both the delight and the luxury of the moment. What a delight it is, especially in an era of antagonistic and emotionally charged public discourse, to talk with thoughtful colleagues about challenging and important issues that impact our day-to-day lives. It is an all-too-rare luxury to time to grapple with questions that have no easy resolution and to listen to the contributions that different perspectives bring to complex issues.

The following day, back in my office and fueled by coffee and peanut butter cups, I turned my attention to putting the final touches on our annual UK Dining Sourcing report; sorting through thousands of purchases and classifying hundreds of different items, compiling and organizing the data. It’s a unique form of bean counting, which is alright by me.  While not as emotionally engaging as seeing students cook for the first time or meeting with one of our remarkable farmers, this report is one of the most important things I do in my job.


A thought that lingered with me after the seminar and followed me through the writing of our report is how important it is to be as clear as possible in our choice of language and our intent when we’re establishing goals or policy. Unfortunately, the equivocation language affords is too often turned against clarity and towards confusion. There’s a troubling tendency across many public arenas to favor domination and divisiveness over seeking greater understanding or common ground. When the purpose of debate becomes winning at any cost rather than coming to consensus, I think we lose something essential to the wellbeing of our community: we lose each other.

The Glory of Bean Counting

The annual dining sourcing report, now in its fourth iteration, gives us the data to talk about exactly how much and what kinds of Kentucky foods are served on our campus. Through the analysis, we learn what UK Dining is buying a lot of, what types of products are more challenging to integrate, and how local food on campus is changing over time. By laying out the contractual definitions of ‘farm impact’ and ‘business impact,’ and including discussion of the other values associated with local food systems, the report also encourages readers interested in farm to campus initiatives to think through what definitions of local food can and should mean.


Through the dining report and all our work, we aim to provide both quantitative analysis and qualitative stories of Kentucky farmers and food entrepreneurs in order to support thoughtful and nuanced conversations about the complexities involved in building vibrant and sustainable food system in Kentucky. While the numbers may not be as immediately gratifying as one of Chef Tanya’s meals, I invite you to sit down with the report and would welcome your thoughts, questions, and insights the next time we gather around the table.

October 1, 2018

Dr. Lilian Brislen
Executive Director, The Food Connection