The Bill Best Award was established as a way to lift up the stories of people and organizations that might otherwise be taken for granted, but whose efforts are essential to the health and vitality of our state’s farm and food systems. When Sarah Fritschner’s name was put forward as a nominee, a collective light bulb went off: Of course!
I don’t remember how I met Sarah Fritschner. By that I mean I can’t remember when she wasn’t part of my professional life in Kentucky. What I can tell you is I always knew she was a deceptively unassuming force to be reckoned with. For the last decade Sarah has served as a value chain coordinator or someone who works behind and in between the scenes to forge the relationships and connections that allow farmers to get their product all the way from their farm to your table.
Before venturing into the value chain weeds, she spent more than 30 years as a journalist and food writer for the Louisville Courier-Journal. She’s also an author, penning at least six cookbooks, co-authoring a nutrition guide, and continues to write about food and farming for regional publications. At every step of her career, she’s been someone who strives to help her community realize the best in itself. She is a woman who follows her passion and her convictions, and in this, she’s been a great mentor and kindred spirit for many of us passionate about local food systems.
From the Ground Up
In many ways, Sarah built the field of value chain coordination from scratch: there were no footsteps to follow. I imagine she approached that challenge like everything else: she picked up the phone, she visited the farms, she kept on the buyers and checked on the product. She celebrated small victories and didn’t sweat setbacks. Drawing on her roots in journalism, she asks questions that she feels need asking, circles back, follows up and keeps on looking for a path forward. She can be a thorn in your side, usually in the best of ways; urging us to aspire to our highest purpose. Her eye is on the long game, not the short return.
To put it simply, her work has been critical to laying the foundation for the future of local food systems for our Commonwealth. I would venture that in she’s directly or indirectly put hundreds of thousands of dollars in the hands of Kentucky farmers that wouldn’t otherwise be there were she not pushing the envelope. Her advocacy for farm-impact purchasing set the stage for our University’s local purchasing goals, and her tireless efforts to find products and producers that were a good fit for our dining needs helped us succeed.
The world of value chain coordination isn’t glamorous. It’s full of hard negotiations and product experimentation, purchase orders, countless miles up and down the highways, and a lot of “no” in the five years or so it takes to get to “yes.” The gentle irony in this award is that there’s a good chance she’s better known in national circles than in our state. In 2016 she was one of ten national leaders designated by the USDA’s FOODLINC program. She’s been profiled by national publications, and a quote from Sarah in a Southern Foodways Alliance interview beautifully encapsulate her unique combination of tenacity and humility: “Reflecting your community is a way to make your job easier, because you don’t have to come up with that. [With your community] you’re always learning, so whatever you’re giving to the community, you’re getting back at least equally, I think.”
For anyone who’s jumped in head first into a new field, having someone to show you the ropes is invaluable. Rather than feeling exasperated or resentful towards a bunch of up-shots galloping haphazardly into an effort she’s been at for years, Sarah has always been generous with her knowledge, encouraging with her praise, and quick to collaborate and support however she can. She’s someone I call for both counsel and consolation. She tries to grow the field, not defend her turf.
From Sarah, I’ve learned to take things less personally, which has been an invaluable life lesson. Other wisdom from the Fritschner book of life includes: Show up and do good work. Be both courteous and courageous. Go out of your way, but don’t make yourself miserable in the process. Root for the underdog, and don’t be afraid to speak truth to power. Hustle. Know that moving on doesn’t mean giving up. Celebrate the small victories; they’re what sustains you.
Some of the most important figures in your life will be the ones who give you good advice you don’t want to hear. When we’re grappling a frustrating farm-to-campus challenge, my colleague Dr. Ashton Potter Wright who runs Bluegrass Farm to Table will remind me of Sarah’s admonishment that “Anything you try to do that’s worth doing will take at least five years.” We’ll look at each other, sigh in recognition of the wisdom, and get back at it. In fact, that may be Sarah’s most enduring legacy: inspiring us all to get back to the good work of community.