Commentary: Legislation would strengthen Buy American rule

Issue Date: November 29, 2017
By Rich Hudgins
Current regulations allow school districts to bypass Buy American requirements in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs. A bill in Congress would strengthen the monitoring and enforcement of the Buy American provision for school food purchases.
Photo/Richard Green
Rich Hudgins

"In the long view, no nation is any healthier than its children or more prosperous than its farmers," President Harry Truman said when he signed the National School Lunch Act in 1946.

The two equal goals of the original National School Lunch Act were to provide nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day and to support U.S. farmers and ranchers. However, in the ensuing 71 years it appears that the second goal of supporting U.S. farmers and ranchers has increasingly been lost, as more schools look to purchase lower-cost, foreign-sourced food products.

According to the latest statistics, schools participating in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs receive nearly $8 billion annually in food products purchased with U.S. tax dollars. This includes more than $1 billion in food products purchased directly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and more than $6.8 billion of U.S. tax dollars spent by school districts.

Food purchased directly by USDA for school feeding programs is required to be 100 percent American-sourced. The Buy American requirement for direct school food purchases has been a part of federal law since 1988. Yet, under current USDA regulations, individual school districts can bypass the existing Buy American requirement and purchase imported food products from anywhere in the world if they believe there is a significant cost differential between domestic and imported food products.

Many California school districts are buying food grown halfway around the world with taxpayer funds, even though our farmers and local food processors supply the very same products.

For example, did you realize that virtually all the apple juice being served in schools today comes from China? Did you know that Chinese canned peaches have been purchased by schools in more than 25 states? Were you aware that more than 30 California school locations purchased frozen Egyptian strawberries last fall that were subject to recall over potential hepatitis A infection? Did you know that more than half of the fish sticks being served in schools today use fish caught by Russian trawlers that are then processed in China—in some cases using North Korean workers, with some of their earnings used to support the North Korean government—before being distributed in the U.S. market?

A July 2017 report by the California State Auditor revealed that the California Department of Education has not been taking the appropriate steps to ensure that California schools are complying with the existing federal Buy American requirements for school food purchases. In a review of six California school districts—Elk Grove, Fresno, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Stockton—the audit showed that none of the schools had adequate policies and procedures in place relating to the Buy American requirement.

After the audit results drew widespread media attention, it appears this issue is finally generating an increasing amount of legislative action. Last month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 730 into law, a measure authored by Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, and supported by a large number of agricultural organizations including the Agricultural Council of California, California Farm Bureau Federation and California Canning Peach Association. The bill establishes steps to be taken by the California Department of Education to ensure that schools are complying with the existing federal Buy American provision. The governor also signed CFBF-sponsored Assembly Bill 822 by Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, which creates a purchase preference for California-grown food with state agencies, institutions and school districts.

However, the California school findings are not an outlier, so the problem must also be addressed at the federal level.

Dr. Katie Wilson is an expert on child nutrition issues and supports the ongoing Buy American effort on school food purchases. She previously served as the deputy undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services at USDA from 2015-17, and notes, "As foreign-sourced foods continue to find their way into school cafeterias, we must strengthen the current Buy American regulation to eliminate loopholes being used to substitute foreign-sourced food products in our nation's schools."

Reps. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, and Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, along with 17 other cosponsors, have introduced H.R. 1241 to strengthen the monitoring and enforcement of the Buy American provision for school food purchases.

California farmers and producers work hard every day to grow and produce safe, healthy food products while implementing environmentally friendly stewardship practices. California-grown food is produced under the strictest regulations to ensure food safety, reduce environmental impacts, carefully manage pesticide use, conserve our water resources and protect the health of farm employees, while providing the highest farm wages in the nation. Spending taxpayer dollars to buy cheaper food products for U.S. students that are grown and processed under very different standards does not reflect our nation's policy priorities, and is extraordinarily discouraging to all of us in the agricultural community who work so hard to comply with our rigorous standards.

Why should schools risk the health and safety of our children for the sake of saving a few dollars on their food expenditures? It seems obvious that President Truman had it right more than 70 years ago: The best way to ensure that our kids have safe, nutritious food at school is to support U.S. farmers and ranchers.

(Rich Hudgins is president and CEO of the California Canning Peach Association.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.